IT’S BEEN A LONG and winding 11-year road for the Dorchester Food Co-op, which will be opening its doors to the public this month. It marks the return of community and work-owned food co-ops to Boston, five years after the last local grocery co-op shuttered.
Co-op markets differ from other markets primarily in their ownership model. Members of the community can pay a one-time fee – $100 in the case of the new Dorchester market – to become a partial owner and thereby have a say in what foods are offered, operating processes, and policies for the organization. The Dorchester Food Co-op, nestled in the heart of Boston’s largest and most diverse neighborhood, aims to be more than a grocery store.
“We’re hoping to impact the fabric of our community by offering these fresh products, and also giving folks support behind it, showing them how to use these ingredients,” John Santos, the general manager of the Dorchester Food Co-op, said on The Codcast. Access to fresh food is tied to better life outcomes, Santos said, and being culturally responsive with ingredients can encourage closer connections within families and communities.
“There’s other benefits when you’re offering fresh produce, and fresh meat, and things like that,” Santos said. “You are inspiring people to cook, not just buy food that is processed and pre-done. And when you’re in your kitchen, you might not be there alone. You might be there with other family members. So now we’re having an impact on the dynamic of the family, and we know that violence in the community is a byproduct of stress. And if we can reduce the stress at the family level, then it’s not a far reach to think we are having an impact on the community at large.”
While the co-op has been active in the neighborhood through its participation in farmer’s markets, CSAs, and pop-ups, it has faced hurdles on its way to opening. Santos cited the difficulty of getting locally grown items into cities and the complexity of catering to a culturally diverse consumer base.
“In the co-op world, the ethnic component is incredibly difficult to deal with,” he said. “It has typically been a market servicing predominantly the white educated customer base that has discretionary income and is able to find their way to the co-op and buy in their Birkenstocks.”
The store aims to serve people from French Creole, Haitian Creole, Cape Verdean, Portuguese, Spanish, and Somali backgrounds. Santos said his prior work at Tropical Foods in Roxbury meant encountering different types of produce like plantains, yams, and yucca, which might not be stocked in other grocery stores but are staples of many ethnic diets and likely to be on the co-op’s shelves.
Santos said, in his experience, co-ops are less likely to run into supply chain problems because of their decentralized purchasing platform, which draws from an array of small suppliers.
It is expensive to stock a variety of different items, especially fresh food items, Santos said, because they eat into the already razor-thin profit margin of grocery stores. Cost savings might show up in items sold in bulk, ranging from rice to fill-your-own tub cleaning or bath products. Santos emphasized that, contrary to what people might believe, the co-op model does not make all items cheaper, especially when it comes to meat and dairy.
“Our driving factor for having meat in our store is that these animals have been treated humanely,” he said. “People are paid fairly. The farmers we deal with are making enough money, so that they’ll be able to sell to us next year too.”
But the enterprise is a community-based effort at its heart. The ownership model means that profits are shared, but profit is a long way off, Santos said.
For co-op owners, “you want to participate because this is a door into having an impact in the community,” he said. “It’s a door that’s open for you. It costs a hundred dollars. And if you don’t have that one hundred, we will subsidize whatever amount we have to. We just want you to participate. We want to hear your voice.”