Of the Earth: Quabbin Harvest celebrates 10th year milestone with co-op writer

  • Co-op author Jon Steinman and Julie Davis, Quabbin Harvest Food Co-op in Orange. Contributed photo/Wesley Blixt—

  • The Quabbin Harvest Community Co-op at 12 North Main Street in Orange received notice that the Healthy Incentives Program has been suspended by the Mass Dept. of Transitional Assistance, beginning April 15.

For the Recorder
Published: 5/14/2019 7:00:24 PM

Quabbin Harvest Food Co-op, now celebrating its 10th anniversary in downtown Orange, is bigger than it looks. Were it not for the invitingly spicy smell wafting onto the sidewalk, passersby with intentions of going elsewhere in town could easily ignore the storefront at 12 North Main St. From the outside, the co-op looks no bigger than many living rooms.

Inside, however, among the shelves stocked with cans and bulk dry goods, something strange happens. The room seems to expand as you move down the aisles, not just with products but with possibilities. You start picking things up — lots of things, things you didn’t know you were looking for, especially if you are hungry. And by the time you get to the back of co-op — where there is a long case of very fresh local vegetables flanked by “Nalini’s Kitchen” — the place seems big enough to accommodate most of what you might ever need for good, healthful naturally-sourced eating.

“Food co-ops come in every shape, size and color,” writes Jon Steinman in his new book “Grocery Story: The Promise of Food Co-ops in the Age of Grocery Giants.” Steinman was on hand on Saturday to discuss his book and to help celebrate the success of the co-op that evolved over the past decade from an informal gathering of local growers and customers under a blue tent outside the Orange Innovation Center.

Steinman should know about co-op diversity, having left his home in Nelson, British Columbia to crisscross North America and visit well over 100 of them. Locally, he has visited co-ops as diverse as those in Brattleboro, V.T., Putney, V.T., Keene, NH., and Amherst, as well as the Old Creamery Co-op in Cummington and the River Valley Co-op in Northampton.

“What all the food co-ops featured in (my) book have in common is their success in transmitting one of the core cooperative principles directly onto their store shelves — concern for community,” say Steinman, who has served as board president and director of the 13,000-member Kootenay Co-op, Canada’s largest independent retail consumer food co-op. He is also producer and host of “Deconstructing Dinner,” an internationally syndicated radio show and podcast. The book and supporting resources are available here: grocerystory.coop.

For Steinman, small co-ops are far from simply being a quaint reminder of an earlier age when grocery stores were local independent gathering places for local food and local people. Quabbin Harvest, he argues, is part of a bulwark against a rapidly growing consolidation of the food market that “gouges those who can least afford it, extracts valuable resources from the community and lines the pockets of the richest people.”

The consolidation of the top food retailers, whose share of the food market has risen from 17 percent and to over 50 percent since the early 1990s, says Steinman, documenting the fact that, in the process, farmers are paid less and consumers charged more. For anyone who has, driving from Greenfield to Orange, debated whether to stop at Stop & Shop or Hannaford, it may be jarring to learn that they are owned by the same Dutch conglomerate, Ahold Delhaize, which also owns eight other chains.

Even the “local food” movement has been partially appropriated by the large food chains, whose “local” sourcing may come from hundreds of miles away, and may do little to help area farmers, said Steinman. In response, his co-op has adopted a “true local” designation, just as Quabbin Harvest has, promoting products that are part of the “local loop.”

Quabbin Harvest, he noted, has been successful in maintaining critical support in the same community that it nourishes. Co-op team leader Julie Davis described working early on with Deb Habib of Seeds of Solidarity Farm and Squash Trucking, among others, to foster the co-op before it even had a building. The co-op moved into its current site five years ago with the help of Mount Grace Land Trust, which bought the building.

While Davis talked, a steady stream of customers came by to pick up vegetarian meals packaged earlier in the week by Nalini Goordial, who often uses up veggies that might otherwise have gone by, and whose “Nalini’s Kitchen,” said Davis, contributes substantially to the co-op’s bottom line. Quabbin Harvest is open six days a week and accepts SNAP/EBT. For more information, visit quabbinharvest.coop.

Wesley Blixt lives in Greenfield. He is a longtime reporter and is the author of SKATERS: A Novel.” Send him recipes, stories and suggestions at wesleyblixt@me.com.




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