While retail stores have blossomed in Kingston filling empty storefronts, the city lacks the practical, day-to-day kinds of shops that decades ago, before supermarkets, malls and big-box stores, made it a true commercial center with residents able to do all their shopping on foot.
For residents lacking cars — and for those of us who wish we could spend less time driving — that’s a problem. So the advent of the Kingston Food Co-op, which was announced last March and so far has between 260 and 300 members as well as a building on Broadway in Midtown, is welcome news.
“Kingston needs a grocery store that is community owned, so that profits are returned to the people and we have products that reflect our very vibrant agricultural community that’s affordable,” said Katy Kondrat, who ran the Kingston Farmers Market for five years and is the Co-op’s project coordinator. “People who live in this part of town don’t have an option for groceries that’s for and by the people. We’re aiming to fill a niche within city limits.”
“Midtown is a food desert, which is why we targeted the area,” noted Evelyn Wright, a member of the co-op’s council (similar to a board of directors) who was just appointed a deputy county executive by Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan (she is also an economist who founded Commonwealth Hudson Valley, which aims to promote a more just, democratic and sustainable economy). “It’s very difficult for people who don’t have a car to food-shop. We are dedicated to serving people in Midtown and creating more healthy alternatives.”
While on average a food co-op takes seven years to get off the ground and is burdened with debt due to the cost of obtaining and renovating a building, the Kingston Food Co-op is ahead of the game thanks to the support of the Novo Foundation, which gifted it the building at 708 Broadway, formerly the Honda dealership, which measures a total of 10,000 square feet, as well as an operations grant. “We have a budget of over $3 million,” said Wright, giving the organization a solid financial foundation.
The co-op started as a conversation a year and half ago, followed by months of work forming the organization (which is not a nonprofit, but a cooperative corporation), including the writing of bylaws and setting up the banking and accounting systems. Memberships went on sale last March. A lifetime membership costs $150; members vote for the members of the council (as well as having the opportunity to run themselves) and get special discounts.
The coop is also offering Solidarity Shares for $15, tailored for SNAP recipients and other people who quality due to their low income. (There is currently a waiting list for the 45 Solidarity Shares that are available. Kondrat said more Solidarity Shares should be available as funds are raised.) “We recognize the possibility for a food co-op to be seen as exclusive or out of reach to lower income people, so we want to make sure it’s accessible and reflective of the entire community,” said Kondrat.
This month, with the help of a grant, the co-op is sponsoring a fundraising drive that matches each new membership with a Solidarity share (private donations are also accepted for the Solidarity shares). The goal is to have 500 members by the end of the year. The co-op needs at least 1,000 members to open, which is expected to happen in two years.
The co-op will be a full-service grocery store — open to the general public as well as members — where people can buy local produce as well as staples such as pasta, milk, cheese and canned goods at affordable prices; members will ultimately determine the actual mix of products.
“We’ll be doing a request for customers to send us their grocery receipts,” noted Kondrat. Prices would be kept reasonable because “we’re not trying to make a profit, but rather serve our members, which means there will not be a layer of separate owners looking to get a 10 to 15 percent profit every year. There will not be a write-up,” said Wright.
To keep costs down, the council is exploring ways to buy pantry items in aggregate, for example possibly by joining the National Cooperative Grocers, which contracts with a major distributor, she added.
Adding some jobs, helping farmers
While it will be significantly smaller than the Albany food co-op, which employs 120, the Kingston co-op also aims to provide well-paying jobs, Wright said. “The economics of the grocery industry means the margins are very tight. With the community process [of creating the food co-op] we have to figure out how to balance the various goals, which is providing high-quality food at affordable prices while creating high-quality jobs.”
Yet another important goal is providing a consistent market for the region’s farmers. “Farmers need more places to sell their products, particularly in wholesale markets,” said Sophie Ackoff, a council member who is co-executive director of the National Young Farmers Coalition (a graduate of Wesleyan University and former farmer, she helped lead the coalition to win investments in young farmers in the 2018 Farm Bill). “The Kingston Food Co-op is poised to be a large-scale purchaser of local products, [surpassing the limits] of the local farmers’ market and CSAs. Our goal is to have the shop open long hours with fresh produce and meats and dairy from Hudson Valley farms,” Ackoff said.
Saddled with student debt and unable to afford land, young farmers in particular face formidable challenges, she added. Besides also being committed to buying from farmers of color, who “face the challenges all farmers do with the addition of the legacy of institutional racism,” the food co-op will help create a lucrative local market “so that farmers don’t have to drive to New York City.” Furthermore, “we’re committed to buying produce from farmers at market value, even if we decide to sell it a reduced rate,” she said.
Another priority is access to the city’s Hispanic community. The co-op’s website will be translated into Spanish, and council member Veronica Martinez-Cruz, a local translator who belongs to the Comida y Tierra team, a series of bi-lingual conversations sponsored by the Kingston Land Trust, is translating the coop’s publicity materials into Spanish, including spots on Spanish-language radio and social media. Last month, the co-op had an event with the Kingston Land Trust that was conducted in Spanish. “I always thought we needed something like this, to provide people with access to better food,” Martinez-Cruz said. Communicating the co-op’s goals, needs and plan in Spanish enables people from the Hispanic community to get information and participate by breaking the language barrier.
The Kingston Food Co-op will differ from the co-ops in High Falls, Albany and Park Slope, which are exclusively owned by the workers, in that it is a hybrid, half owned by the workers and half by the consumers. The worker and consumer members will each elect three members of the nine-member council, with the remaining three council members chosen by those six council members. All labor will consist of paid staff, with the equipment and other costs paid through fundraising, Kondrat said.
The co-op model is practically as old as humans, who have always organized collaboratively, noted Wright. Its modern-day form dates back to the early 19th century in England, when the market wasn’t meeting workers needs and weavers and industrial workers organized to create their own stores, which they owned collectively. “Since then, there have been waves of co-ops every time the market wasn’t meeting people’s needs,” she said. In the 1930s, for example, “about a fourth of the U.S. land area was served by electrical cooperatives, since many utilities didn’t want to serve rural areas” — co-ops still in existence today. The financial crisis of 2008 spurred another wave. “New York City has made about an $8 million investment in supporting the work of co-ops, with two dozen organizations providing this … I think it would be great if we have at least one in the Hudson Valley,” Wright added.
The four women are dedicating themselves to several more months of planning, including working with consultants on designing the store, building relationships with producers, and doing lots of community outreach, with the first annual membership meeting planned in the spring. There will be a market analysis of whether the customer base in Kingston could support a café or commercial kitchen.
“Our goal is to be able to feed everybody in Kingston well,” concluded Wright. “A cooperative is the only form that can do that, because it’s controlled by the members. That means building a really strong democracy.”
For more information on the Kingston Food Co-op and to become a member, visit kingstonfoodcoop.com.