of the Food Desert
five years of work, the Troy Community Food Co-op opens the
new Pioneer Food Market
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
community is directly connected to decisions that are being
made,” Vaughn noted. “This is going to strengthen the community
that’s already here.”
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.
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.