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In Northeast Oak Park, a Food Co-Op Takes Root

Starting small, neighbors begin exploring the idea of a local storefront cooperative.

Consumer cooperatives, by their very definition, are created by people who share the same values. So it's little wonder that neighbors Jenny Jocks Stelzer and Cheryl Munoz are planting the seeds for what could blossom into a big idea.

Together with their northeast Oak Park neighbors, they've shared the harvest of backyard gardens, evangelized for community supported agriculture and delivered big batches of soup as part of a neighborhood exchange.

Now, they're looking to expand the community goodwill with the creation of a local food cooperative.

"It's not about competing with Dominick's, it's more about getting people to think about food and produce, and how to do that in a way that supports values and supports neighbors and supports the earth," said Stelzer, 35, a teacher at Robert Morris University. "It's about changing the way we think about eating and where we get our food."

Though arrangements can vary, here's how food co-ops typically work: a group of people each pay a membership fee, thereby giving them a share of ownership in the store and a voice in what types of foods are stocked on the store's shelves. In this case, local, organic and sustainable foods. If the store turns a profit, it's distributed to the members. For more, see the nonprofit Food Co-Op Initiative's website.

Stelzer said the idea for an Oak Park cooperative is in it very early stages and could take many forms. In fact, she said, it's probably a good three to five years from even becoming a reality.

This summer, about a dozen families in northeast Oak Park will try their hand at sharing the haul from community supported agriculture program. Stelzer and Munoz said they're hoping to generate enough interest to catapult that idea into a brick-and-mortar storefront.

It looks like they may already have it.

A discussion on Live Here Oak Park has garnered three pages of mostly favorable discussion, and the "Oak Park Food Co-op" Facebook page has nearly doubled in size in about a week.

Lisa Junkin serves as president of the Dill Pickle Food Cooperative in Chicago's Logan Square community, which Stelzer said may offer a model for Oak Park. She welcomed the concept of another area co-op.

"Like Oak Park, Logan Square has a really amazing sense of community and like-minded folks who want to invest in something, and I don't mean financially," she said. "The food movement has progressed into something away from a fringe minority of people interested in natural foods. We all have access to places like Whole Foods, but I think we offer something different, incredibly thoughtful and beyond what they offer. This place is a community, and one that the community loves and cares for."

That's what Stelzer and Munoz envision for their storefront, which they say would preferably be located along Chicago Avenue between Ridgeland Avenue and Austin Boulevard.

"There's no coffee shop or stomping grounds for our little corner of Oak Park. We really want a place in the community to meet and to hang out," Munoz said.

Also important is fostering a sense of ownership for all, from ritzy Oak Park enclaves to more modest locales in Chicago's Austin neighborhood.

"Anytime the word 'cooperative' is brought up, [people rush to think] of a crunchy boutique for the privileged," Stelzer said. "By no means do we want to make this a pricey operation. We're figuring out how to make this as affordable as possible, and we don't want to make people feel like it's some sort of specialty store.

"We want to make people feel that 'these are my groceries and they just happen to grown by people I know."

Casey Cora February 15, 2012 at 04:01 PM
Hey Maria! Thanks for the comment. Word is definitely spreading around town....
The Sugar Beet Co-op February 17, 2012 at 02:45 PM
Thanks, Casey, for sharing our story in this excellent piece. Also, Maria, we'd love to hear your ideas and have you get involved! Please (and this goes for anyone in our community who would like to share their co-op ideas) contact me at jjocksstelzer@gmail.com, like Oak Park Food Co-op on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter @OPCo_op!
GreenHomeMama April 04, 2012 at 06:55 PM
Love it, love it. Thanks for jumping on this much-needed project, Jenny and Cheryl.
Stacey Lawson Barr April 16, 2012 at 01:29 AM
I am so glad I stumbled upon this! I would LOVE to see this happen and will help in any way I can!!!! Stacey Lawson Barr
The Sugar Beet Co-op April 16, 2012 at 01:37 AM
Thanks, AGDoyle and great, Stacey! Like us at "Oak Park Food Co-op" on facebook and email me at jjocksstelzer@gmail.com to get involved. We are currently defining and designing our volunteer working groups which will be in action starting this summer. We'll also be at Earth Fest this Saturday from 10am-2pm. Drop by our table; we can't wait to meet you!

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