Ten years, 1,032 members and $2.9 million later, the Bethlehem Food Co-Op is set to open a community-owned, reasonably-priced and locally sourced grocery store in 2023.
The co-op grocery store will be located at 250 E. Broad St. on the North Side of Bethlehem.
According to Bethlehem Food Co-Op’s mission statement, “The Bethlehem Food Co-Op is a diverse community encouraging physical, social and economic health by providing healthful, affordable food; emphasizing local, sustainable, humane and natural food systems; and offering unique educational opportunities to the entire community.”
Numerous parts of Bethlehem are considered a food desert by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Following this classification and the closure of multiple grocery stores on the South Side, the Bethlehem Food Co-Op was founded in 2013.
Elliot Nolter, board secretary for the Bethlehem Food Co-Op, said the first idea for starting a co-op in Bethlehem was expressed in 2011.
“No one that is involved has ever opened a grocery store before,” Nolter said.
Board Chair of the Bethlehem Food Co-Op Carol Ritter said the group is working closely with The Food Co-Op Initiative, which is the national association of food co-ops, to create this new grocery store.
Ritter said the organization’s current goal is to gather 1,250 households to become founding members of the grocery store.
“What that says to us is that we will have 1,250 people that are pretty much guaranteed to shop at our store,” Ritter said.
Nolter said anyone in the Bethlehem community can become an owner of the co-op grocery store. He said every member purchases the same equity share of the store at $300. Scholarships through Membership for All are available to help cover the cost for those looking to become members.
In July, Rep. Susan Wild awarded a $2.9 million grant to the city of Bethlehem in support of the Bethlehem Food Co-Op’s plans to create this community-owned grocery store.
Nolter said in most co-ops, funds rely heavily on members investing loans in the co-op with low-interest rates, similar to investing in stocks. This grant sets the Bethlehem Food Co-Op apart from other co-ops, because they do not have to rely on membership loans.
“The FCI interviewed us and told us that we could go down in history as the first co-op nationally that ever opened with no debt,” Ritter said. “It’s important the public knows how the city has engaged us and supported us throughout this process.”
Chair of the co-op’s MOVE (Marketing/Outreach/Volunteer/Engagement) Committee Carol Burns said she joined the Bethlehem Food Co-Op to make good, fresh and locally sourced food accessible to all of her neighbors.
“One of the goals for our site is that you can walk to it, ride your bike to it, take the bus, drive your car, and that’s not true of a lot of grocery resources in our community,” Burns said.
Nolter said there is a bus stop on East Broad Street where the store will be located, so South Bethlehem community members will have easy access to the co-op.
Nolter said the grocery store will be accepting points from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). He said healthy, organic and local food will be set at a lower profit margin at the co-op grocery store to encourage people to buy at a lower cost than at competing grocery stores like Wegmans.
“I actually drive far to get quality, organic food and now I won’t have to do that,” Ritter said. “We’re a community in our own right. We all have the same belief system when it comes to not only what we eat but what we source.”