You've just dealt with rush-hour traffic on Route 22, or, perhaps you've just completed a public bus commute with a transfer at the Bethlehem transit center. Regardless, it's been a long day. You head into the kitchen to prepare dinner for your family. Halfway through the recipe, you realize you are out of one of the essential ingredients. How long does it take to get to the grocery store, purchase the item and return home? Chances are, if you live or work in downtown Bethlehem, you've experienced a moment of frustration like this at one point or another related to the lack of a nearby grocery store.
It is exactly this sort of situation that sparked a movement to open a community-owned-and-operated grocery store, known as a food co-op, in Bethlehem. While the location of the store is still being determined, it will be within one of the city's two downtown areas — locales defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as "food deserts" or neighborhoods with low access to fresh food. The Bethlehem Food Co-Op will strengthen our community by improving the local economy, increasing the walkability of the city, and empowering residents.
Co-ops have been a successful business model since the 1840s, when a group of artisans in England got together to collectively purchase food and household items they could not afford on their own. They ran their business according to a set of cooperative principles. Since then, numerous waves of cooperative development have occurred under those same principles, growing from various social and political movements.
The Bethlehem Food Co-op is part of a solution to strengthen the economy in the greater Lehigh Valley region. Part of the co-op's mission is to support local food systems whenever possible. The store will build relationships with farmers and producers in the Valley, keeping food dollars circulating in our local economy and allowing lower prices to be passed on to shoppers.
According to Buy Fresh Buy Local, an organization that connects consumers to local farmers and producers, "If each of the 390,000 households in the Greater Lehigh Valley committed to spending just $10 per week on locally grown foods during the growing season, we would keep $109 million of our food dollars circulating here."
Clearly, a store committed to sourcing as much product as possible from local vendors would have an enormous positive impact on the local economy. Additionally, the co-op plans to provide quality employment opportunities by offering fair wages, comprehensive benefits, and the chance for employees to have a strong voice in the business.
Another benefit residents can look forward to with the opening of the Bethlehem Food Co-Op is the increased walkability of their neighborhoods. Aside from the obvious convenience of being able to purchase basic groceries and household items without driving across town, research suggests that neighborhoods and cities that are considered walkable have stronger economies than those that require residents to drive.
"Real estate values increase as neighborhoods became more walkable, where everyday needs, including working, can be met by walking, transit or biking," according to Christopher B. Leinberger, professor at The George Washington University School of Business and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Leinberger found that average household incomes can increase by up to $10,000 in walkable neighborhoods.
One of the most valuable things the co-op will offer to its neighbors is a chance for empowerment. While the store will be open to any member of the public, households that choose to invest a small amount of equity in the co-op become member-owners, meaning they have an equal voice in decisions regarding the business and are encouraged to run for the board and take on other leadership positions. The Bethlehem Food Co-Op will be more than just a store; it will serve as a community gathering space, a center for education and informed consumerism, and a forum for neighbors to build relationships and have their voices heard. The co-op will be a source of pride for its members and the city as a whole, bringing the spirit of the Lehigh Valley into the spotlight. (Morning Call newspaper, October 29, 2013, written by Colleen Marsh, http://articles.mcall.com/2013-10-29/opinion/mc-bethlehem-food-co-op-marsh-yv-20131029_1_grocery-store-local-economy-food-dollars)