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Mobtown Beat

Thought for Food

Natural-Living Advocates Plan to Revive a Food Co-Op in Charles Village

By Laura Lewis | Posted 1/28/2004

It's been 10 years since The Belly closed. The Charles Village store was a community-run natural foods co-operative--a retail store where members could buy organic and natural foods in bulk at more affordable prices than they might find at supermarkets and other retailers. Since the Belly disbanded, the city has not had a true storefront natural-foods co-op.

But recently, a group of about 10 business owners, herbalists, students, and other professionals formed a nonprofit organization called the Village: A Natural Food Cooperative with the purpose of starting up a natural-foods cooperative--a collectively owned grocery in which every member owns a share and gets a vote in every decision. The store will bear the same name as the organization, and it should be open by late summer in a yet-to-be-determined location in Charles Village.

The Village will rely heavily on volunteers to operate and will work directly with local farmers to bring food from "farm to plate," says Skai Davis, owner of the Yabba Pot, a vegetarian café on the 2400 block of St. Paul Street that serves as the headquarters for the project.

"God created the earth and plants to grow--he didn't say, 'Put pesticides on them,'" says Davis, who has been a vegetarian for 16 years and ran a vegetarian catering service for two years before opening the Yabba Pot in April 2003. "The main benefit of eating organic food is avoiding the toxic residue going into your system and what it can do."

Although Baltimore is home to health-food stores that offer organic items--foods grown without the interference of chemicals or other unnatural manipulation--Davis notes there aren't many. Besides the two Whole Foods Markets in the city, which are owned by an Austin, Texas-based company, she says there are only three locally owned stores that specialize in natural foods. In addition, Davis says, the organic selection at most major markets is limited. Lack of demand and high costs make organic items less appealing to supermarkets and consumers than conventionally grown products. For example, she says, 25 pounds of organic carrots cost about $35, while the same amount of "regular" carrots cost about $17.

Davis says she believes there is a larger market for all-natural foods here. The closest thing to a co-op in the city now is the Baltimore Natural Buying Club, which she operates out of the Yabba Pot. Members of the club pay a $25 annual fee and order organic food and products in bulk from distributors--the bulk ordering fetches them a lower price for natural foods, cosmetics, and health-care items, which are delivered every one to two weeks to the Yabba Pot.

Davis organized the buying club three years ago with 10 families, hoping that she eventually could generate enough interest to justify opening a storefront co-op (Mobtown Beat, Nov. 27, 2002, www.citypaper.com/2002-11-27/mobs. html). The club now counts 40 families as members, and Davis says she's ready "to go to the next level."

"This is a very important project for me," she says. "The potential it has for Baltimore is grand. Every major city in America has a co-op. Baltimore definitely needs one."

Unbeknownst to Davis as she was building the foundation of her co-op, Gretchen Heilman, a clinical herbalist who owns Alive and Awake Nutrition and Herbs in the 500 block of St. Mary Street in Seton Hill was formulating a similar plan. Heilman just finished a leadership program, and one of her projects was to write up a proposal for an organization that would make healthier foods available to low-income residents in Baltimore City. The goal of the project, she says, was to reach those who want to be "healthy-food families but can't afford to." Heilman points out that many low-income residents purchase many of their meals at convenience stores, drugstores, or fast-food restaurants because healthier options are too expensive or inconveniently located.

Heilman's proposal envisioned a food-shopping option that charged less and actively courted city residents. In Heilman's mind, the food co-op could be part of the fabric of the community in which it operates.

"It's different from [what] you see shopping at Whole Foods," she says. "These people will be coming together to build the co-op, create everything--from what kinds of foods to how it's run."

After meeting when Heilman was a customer at the Yabba Pot, Heilman and Davis joined forces. On Jan. 11, the two women, along with the other members of the co-op team held a fund-raising event, dubbed A Day of Renewal, at St. John's Church in Charles Village. More than 300 people attended the event, Davis says, and the co-op committee raised about $2,500--more than enough to hire a business consultant to write grants and develop a business structure for the Village.

Now the organization is searching for a retail storefront in Charles Village, a neighborhood that is appealing because of its diverse population and convenient location. "To start in the middle [of the city] is, I guess, the best thing," Davis says.

The co-op committee behind the effort to open the Village is optimistic that it will be more successful, and longer lived, than the Belly. Committee member Rachel Sitkin, manager of the North Baltimore vegetarian restaurant One World Café, says the success of this new venture depends on the members.

"The most important thing is the people that are involved," Sitkin says. "If you don't have people who are consistently dedicated, it's going to fall apart."

Co-op organizers are already encouraging people to sign up for memberships with the Village. Though the store will be open to the public, members will get extra benefits, including discounted prices and a vote in the store's operations.

The store will carry an array of organic produce, grains, seeds, nuts, and possibly free-range meats, and Davis says prices will be marked up just enough to cover operating costs. In addition to edibles, Davis and Heilman hope to offer educational programs, yoga classes, a library, and a child-care co-op.

"It's just a wider effort and bigger project than the food itself, and fosters a sense of community and feeling proud of Baltimore," Heilman says. "I would like to see the co-op as a demonstration for other communities throughout Baltimore who don't have grocery stores to use it as a model."

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