Grain Store at GreenStar: Co-op celebrates 50 years | Ithaca


ITHACA, NY – GreenStar Cooperative Market celebrated 50 years in business this year. For many decades, retired municipal lawyer Dan Hoffman and former Ithaca mayor Carolyn Peterson have both been heavily involved in the organization, Hoffman since its inception and Peterson since the mid-1970s.

GreenStar is a “consumer cooperative,” a form of organization that became particularly popular before the turn of the 20th century in response to the intensification of monopoly practices in the American food supply. Federal support for co-ops remained strong in the 1930s, but then declined after World War II.

Member-owners working at the Cayuga Street store in 1986.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a second wave of cooperative formation, and the Ithaca Real Food Co-op (IRFC) was one of them. According to a story written by Hoffman for the 40th anniversary: ​​“The hippies and activists (mostly students) who created it envisioned a decentralized local system with little overhead – no store, no employees, and a lot of work. given. Members were divided into neighboring regions, which ordered produce once a week and non-perishable goods every two weeks. Every Saturday morning, volunteers would go to a wholesaler in Syracuse and bring food back to Ithaca. According to Hoffman, “a minimum mark-up of five percent would ensure the lowest possible prices.”

A cooperative belongs to its members. “You can’t buy stocks,” Hoffman said in a recent interview. “It’s a member, a voice.” The statutes, as drafted in 1971, guided by the principles of the international cooperative movement, created an organization that was, he said, “as democratic as it gets”.

The pre-order / no store approach was demanding. “For better or for worse,” Hoffman wrote in 2011, “the IRFC offered direct involvement with the food and neighbors absent from the experience of many Americans, an involvement as exciting and magical as it could be. frustrating.

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Founder Dan Hoffman in the early years.

After 1974, the IRFC began to sell food that had not been ordered in advance, and a retail-type entity called Grainstore began a nomadic existence. In 1979 it was located on Fifth Street and two volunteer coordinators were hired (after much debate).

Peterson pre-ordered food for his family through the Fall Creek Group. Her house served as a pickup site at least once, and she also made the trip to Syracuse. She regularly participated in the preparation of orders. Already a political activist when she moved to Ithaca from Chicago, she saw the cooperative as the integration of buying food into community building.

“I loved that everyone had their place in the store,” she recalls in a phone interview after retiring to the Adirondacks. “Everyone had something to do.

In 1980, Hoffman proposed allowing members to purchase food without volunteering hours. The following year, the Grainstore hired Denny Hayes as its first full-time manager. In 1982, the Grainstore Council, a board of directors, was formed, and the IRFC pre-order system and retail store split into separate entities with the rebranded store as GreenStar (sharing the initials of its predecessor).

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Old showcase.

As the IRFC quickly declined and disappeared, in 1984 GreenStar moved to larger premises at the corner of Farm and North Cayuga streets. He stayed there for nine years, during which time he expanded his inventory to include coffee, chocolate, corn chips and… packaged groceries. All of this, according to Hoffman’s account from 2011, has been accompanied by a huge debate because of the democratic nature of a cooperative. But it was a democracy that worked; the company has evolved with the changing times.

Ithaca is a city full of cooperatives. Handwork, Moosewood, Ithaca Farmers Market, and Alternatives Credit Union are contemporaries of GreenStar. Hoffman recalled that another food cooperative was started on Eddy Street in the 1980s. “It was set on a small budget,” he recalls, “and it didn’t last.” Ithaca Biodiesel operated between 2007 and 2013. Buffalo Street Books was founded in 2011. Ithaca’s first cooperative supermarket, the Cooperative Consumer Society, was established in the 1940s and closed in the 1990s.

On January 6, 1992, the Farm Street store was burnt down, apparently by a teenage boy. This precipitated the move to a vacant 10,000 square foot Payless supermarket in the West End, where GreenStar remained until the current store opened in May 2020.

Peterson served on the board for several years until the 1980s when the store was in Fall Creek and open only to members. During this time, Peterson spoke with non-member friends about the food offered by GreenStar and found that some people felt left out. She began to think of the membership policy as elitist. At the West End store, the policy has been changed. After 1992, anyone could shop at GreenStar, but there is still a member discount.

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A former staff member.

During its 18 years in the West End, the co-op has evolved in a number of ways, although important decisions have continued to be made democratically. For example, in 2002, members voted to allow the store to sell meat.

“It was approved with conditions,” Hoffman said, “which were then amended. The emphasis was on locally produced meat. The initial conditions required GreenStar staff to perform in-person inspections of farms. This rule has been relaxed to allow third-party inspections instead.

As membership grew, what had been a participatory democracy, Hoffman said, became a more representative democracy. More decisions began to be made by the elected Council. GreenStar and other co-ops have adapted the principles developed for nonprofit organizations by Professor John Carver of the University of Georgia. These provide a rational and coherent way to divide the responsibilities of a board over staff.

Ten years ago, GreenStar launched FLOWER, its discount for low-income buyers. It coincided with an effort to diversify its staff and customers.

Fall Creek was a diverse neighborhood when Peterson lived there, a diversity that included people with low incomes. She was aware of the perception that food in the cooperative was more expensive. “We talked about this years ago,” she said of the council. “I don’t think it was [more expensive]. “It depended on what you were buying,” she says, “and she tended to buy food in bulk. She occasionally went shopping at P&C, so she had a point of reference.

Hoffman said FLOWER did pretty well. “It’s not too strict – there’s no work requirement – and it’s not bureaucratic,” he said.

The traditional feature of member-owned co-ops, the work requirement, has been optional at GreenStar since 1981 when they hired their first full-time employee. “Initially, everyone had to work,” he recalls, “although I’m not sure everyone does. There was a lot going on with the pre-order system.

As for staff diversity, Hoffman said it comes and goes. “Retail jobs are not held for long by most,” he noted. “We have to work on diversification all the time. “


Today’s GreenStar flagship location.

He said that less than 10 years after moving to the West End in 1992, Council and members started talking about building a bigger store or more stores. Diverse or not, GreenStar has grown. In 2004, they opened a satellite store in the Dewitt Shopping Center. In 2010, they acquired what was called The Space, across Buffalo Street. In 2016, they opened a store in Collegetown. Why get fat?

“To get more people involved in the cooperative model,” Hoffman said. “We believe in this model. They did some market research and found that, on paper, they could attract more people to a bigger store. The reality has been somewhat different, Hoffman said, as they opened two months after the start of the Covid pandemic. One thing that a cooperative is not is a non-profit organization.

“We are operating at a loss,” Hoffman said, “but it has improved. We have to do better than breaking even. We have to have reserves to get through tough times, so spending has to be limited. “

Both Hoffman and Peterson have observed the evolution of the community around them. The amount of food packaged in GreenStar, which was added to the Farm Street store, has been steadily increasing, as has the amount of prepared food (which is largely made in-house). Hoffman is also amazed at the variety of housewares sold in the new store.

Peterson, who followed the advice of Francis Moore Lappé’s “Diet for a Small Planet” early on, has always viewed GreenStar as part of a larger community spirit. In the 1970s, she met the original IRFC crowd through the Self-Reliance Center, an activist center run by Hoffman that promoted alternative energy, opposed nuclear war, and was already “thinking local”.

“To me [healthy food] went hand in hand with environmentalism, ”she said. “You wanted your food to have good sources, you wanted to know how it was produced, whether they used sprays or pesticides. Does she think more people think that way now? She hopes so.

“When I was mayor,” Peterson recalls, “the planning department was very keen on having a Trader Joe’s in Ithaca. At the time, the company said it wasn’t a good fit. Well, something has changed.


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