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Photo: Alicia Solsman

Out of the Food Desert

After five years of work, the Troy Community Food Co-op opens the new Pioneer Food Market

 

By Amy Halloran

When the Pioneer Market closed in 2005, it was the last grocery in the city of Troy. The market had been limping along for years, its minimal stock confusing potential customers, and its dirty floors discouraging them. The east wall of the store was lined with freezer cases that held typical ready-to-roll foods and a surprising variety of meats processed at the butcher counter. Rabbits, for instance. If you bought bananas, they might smell like the clerk’s cigarette smoke.

The next incarnation of the Pioneer Food Market tiptoed back to retail life with a soft opening on Oct. 5, ironing out the operating kinks for the grand opening on Tuesday. Member owner Jamie Vaughn cut the ribbon after a circuit of thanks, from board members to the community and politicians who helped steer funds to the opening moment. A few politicos congratulated the community on their efforts, and then member-owner John Kelly played his bagpipes to lead the assembled into the store.

The store, located at 77-81 Congress St. in the middle of downtown Troy, is clean and well-lit and filled with food. There is an abundant produce section featuring local, organic and conventional choices; a spiffy salad bar with hot entrees and sides; specialty cheeses and bulk items; and packaged goods as ordinary as Fluff and extraordinary as Puckers Gourmet pickles from Greenwich.

Five years in the making, the store is run by a cooperative. Although the word “cooperative” purposefully doesn’t appear in the name, in an attempt to avoid the mystery surrounding it, people wonder if the business is open to everyone.

“I don’t know how many conversations I’ve had explaining what a co-op is,” says Mary Muller, an owner who has been involved in the initiative since its beginning. Muller is a Midwesterner and said she had a great familiarity with cooperatives because of that. “The cooperative movement came over to the United States in the mid 1800s. The upper Midwest and the Midwest is where all kinds of cooperative organizations were established and continue, not just food co-ops but dairy cooperatives, electrical lights cooperatives, furniture cooperatives. It’s a valid business structure that some parts of the country are more familiar with than others.”

In the Northeast, most people know only food co-ops and assume that member-owners of the cooperative work to receive shopping discounts. For the Troy Community Food Co-op, members join with a one-time investment of $150; they are not required to invest time. When the market starts turning a profit, members will receive a share of those earnings, but no one receives a discount at the register. And anyone is welcome to shop there.

Board president Alane Hohenberg is the engine that got this train of food to Troy. Another transplanted Midwesterner with a native understanding of the cooperative model (her father organized a crop-insurance cooperative in the 1940s in North Dakota), Hohenberg initiated community conversations about the lack of a grocery and what should be done. A core group met weekly to continue discussions and eventually decided to incorporate as a cooperative and seek members.

“As things go in the co-op world, we really accomplished a minor miracle,” says Hohenberg. “We’ve accomplished in five years what takes other co-ops seven or eight years to accomplish. It’s been a remarkable thing. We’ve capitalized in a very, very challenged financial market. Our first financial package failed because a bank pulled out, so we had to rebuild our financial package. We had broad support that leveraged interest from banks and other funding partners.”

Those funding partners were many, and were local or regional in nature. Troy Community Food Co-op owners have contributed $190,000 in loans to the effort, and members have outright donated $13,000 for the grand opening. The financing was creative and complicated, and is an ongoing effort. An owner loan campaign is continuing, and the Cooperative is putting in a grant proposal to the Healthy Foods/Healthy Communities Initiative.

Agriculture and Markets and the Empire State Development Corporation jointly run this New York State program, and it’s similar to programs in Pennsylvania that paved the way to increase supermarket access in underserved areas. Now known commonly as “food deserts,” these places can be both urban and rural and are characterized by poor access to fresh, healthy and affordable foods. Food deserts can be rich in fast-food joints and convenience stores with minimal produce offerings. Until the co-op opened in Troy, the only place to get an apple downtown (excepting Saturdays at the Troy Waterfront Farmers Market) was by request at certain corner stores, where the perishables were not always on display.

The Troy Community Food Co-op looked to a cooperative in Burlington, Vt., for an example of how to run a dual- purpose market in a city. Onion River Co-op began during the natural foods movement of the 1970s and started operating a downtown grocery store, City Market, eight years ago. The effort is a great success, serving both natural-food enthusiasts and city residents whose shopping agendas are more mainstream. Troy’s Pioneer Food Market follows this model and is stocking with this diverse clientele in mind.

“We have Freihofer’s right next to Rock Hill,” says Peter Liporace, who works full-time in the cheese and deli department. Liporace lives three blocks away and is considering giving up his car. “We’re a market and we cater to people who want to have healthy choices and to the entire community.” His position is one of 40 new jobs created by the co-op. Another clerk, who used to have to take two buses to his job, has greatly reduced his commute. Rensselaer County Job Development Program is one organization that helped support the co-op, because of these employment advantages the market would provide.

A number of other organizations in the community have contributed to the effort. The grassroots support is so strong that board members are hesitant to name or thank people for fear of overlooking someone else’s contribution. The Center for Economic Opportunity, Unity House and the YWCA are helping provide investment scholarships to people who can’t afford the joining price.

The market is now set up to accept SNAP, or food stamp benefits, and is working to get all the paperwork in place for its WIC accreditation. Unfortunately, SNAP benefits were not in place immediately upon opening, owing to difficulties encountered in the application process. At the grand opening, a man on a motorized wheelchair whizzed into the store, and declared he’d shop there once he heard that they accept food stamps. Amid the general ebullience of the morning, however, one customer worried about the prices.

“I’m a member and I’ll shop here, but unless you make a decent living you can’t shop on a regular basis,” said Art Fleischner. “Hopefully, they’re reviewing their prices.”

Lebanese food vendor Paul Chedrawee, of Al-Baraki, was offering samples of his wares, beloved to Troy (and for a time on Lark Street in Albany, too). The company is now preparing garlic paste, stuffed grape leaves and other foods for area supermarkets, including the Honest Weight Food Co-op and the Niskayuna Co-op Market.

Over in the kitchen, lunch was almost ready. Steven Beaudry used to be sous chef at New World Bistro Bar in Albany and is now the deli manager. A Trojan, Beaudry welcomed the chance to work where he lives. Jay Jones is his assistant. The two are making hot dishes that are getting rave reviews—vegetarian choices that lean toward the vegan side, and always a main-dish meat option.

Just beyond the checkout, massage therapist Lou Alpey from Spectrum Massage worked on ribbon cutter Jamie Vaughn. When asked if it mattered whether the store was a co-op, she said yes.

“The community is directly connected to decisions that are being made,” Vaughn noted. “This is going to strengthen the community that’s already here.”

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

New World Bistro Bar (300 Delaware Ave., Albany) was one of only 16 restaurants in the United States to win a 2010 Santé Restaurant Award in the Innovative Food category. The 13-year-old Santé Awards program is the only peer-judged national restaurant competition in North America. Chef consultant Ric Orlando previously won a Santé Award in 2006 at his Saugerties restaurant, New World Home Cooking. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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