Co-op Talk Around the Water Cooler — by Chi Lin

As the Amherst Food Co-op (AFC) gains traction, I have been nudging people that I meet around town, trying to get a sense for how the idea of a co-op will sit with people. Though the member numbers are strong, the co-op is still in its infancy, even in the realm of awareness around town. I decided to ask some of my coworkers what they knew, if anything, and what they would like to see in the co-op as it takes shape.

Rusty, a solar salesperson by trade and an Ultimate frisbee phenom by legend (he actually plays professionally), is from Green River, VT and has ties to co-ops in more ways than one. As an Amherst community member who works in Hatfield, he frequents the River Valley Co-op in Northampton. For those who don’t know, River Valley Co-op sits in a carved-out quarry on Route 5, just past Bridge Rd. More than a patron of the co-op in Noho, though, he is the son of two members of the original Brattleboro co-op.

As a member of a renewable energy company, one of Rusty’s chief concerns about co-ops is making sure that they practice what they preach — locality, accessibility, and most of all, sustainability.

“The Northampton co-op is great,” he says, “but the location they picked makes it hard to access. It’s tucked away in this quarry, and on busy days police officers have to go over there and direct traffic.”

Though River Valley is a sizeable store and offers a variety of local produce, fair trade products, and hot food, it isn’t very accessible. Route 5 is a busy road, with speed limits reaching 45 mph by the time you hit the curve just past the co-op. Cars fly down the road and make getting in and out an arduous task, especially when traffic is heavy. Accessing the location by bicycle can put cyclists in great danger.

The issue of accessibility is huge, especially for a business that is trying to promote food security. So, accessibility could be better, but the real issue that Rusty discusses is the natural environment in which the co-op was built.

“It was built in a quarry,” he explains, “so expansion isn’t really an option. And they had to clear out a lot of that rock to even fit the building in there. The carbon footprint for that place almost outweighs the good things about it.”

Rusty acknowledges the good that comes from co-ops, of course. After all, River Valley Co-op did something extraordinary — they started a local grocery store stocked by farms in the community in an area where big corporations like Stop & Shop have been known to swoop up locations where cooperatives are planning to build. It has happened before, and as a consequence, new co-ops — like the AFC — are necessarily cryptic about potential build sites, so much so that most of their members won’t even know the location until it is approved. So, we should all tip our hats to River Valley for their hard work.

AND, just because something has been done well, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done better.

We talk about the benefits of creating a co-op that doubles as a community space for people to come together and share ideas. Rusty brings up the monthly political talks that are offered at Black Sheep. Open mics, workshops, writing collectives. These kinds of community gatherings would be greatly welcome at a co-op, especially in a place like Amherst.

A final significant note that Rusty makes is the importance of having a variety of healthy food options for people on the go.

“Something that both Brattleboro and Northampton do really well is offering healthy, easy hot-food options for people.”

In a society where GMO’s and processed foods pushed by big agriculture have taken over most major grocery stores, the importance of having good, fresh food for those of us who find it hard to find time to cook on a regular basis cannot be overstated.

As we talk more about the prospect of a co-op finally coming to Amherst, Rusty assures me that he would be overjoyed by a co-op opening up. Given the kind of community we have here and the ever-increasing urgency to make our everyday lives more sustainable, a local, cooperative store is an exciting and necessary addition to the town.

Much appreciated, Rusty. See you soon for good, hot food and our first open mic.

Chi Lin