Relocation forces changes in food co-op rules Shorter hours are among move's inconveniences

January 17, 1996|By Fay Lande | Fay Lande,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Columbia Natural Foods co-op has lost its one-day-a-month home at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, and its new site will force changes in its operations.

The co-op, operating in Columbia for more than a quarter-century, was asked to move from the lobby of the Interfaith Center in the fall.

The center said the co-op's presence in the lobby could interfere with activities of the four churches that are primary tenants, so it offered the co-op the option of renting a room at a higher rate or leaving.

The co-op, saying it was unable to afford the increased charges, left the Interfaith Center and plans to use space in a Guilford-area warehouse to distribute the $5,000 or so worth of food purchased monthly by its members.

The new location has drawbacks -- shorter hours and a rule that bars children from the site -- but members say they have no alternatives.

Susan Kirby, president of the co-op's board, said she could understand the center's concerns.

That building also is used for funerals, she said, and the co-op's presence could be incongruous at such times. "We were in the lobby and it was really uncomfortable for grieving family members to see what looks like a grocery store," Ms. Kirby said.

Negotiations for an alternative space at Slayton House fell through just before Christmas, when co-op members realized that the facility could not accommodate the early deliveries scheduled by suppliers.

The co-op purchases grains, cheese, bread, meat from animals raised without artificial hormones, and other items directly from distributors. The group makes no profit, because members purchase the food at cost. In exchange, members contribute two hours of work per month.

Because the co-op's 28 member families contribute no working capital (beyond a yearly $18 membership fee used to guarantee its checks), the co-op can afford only a low or subsidized rent and cannot hire help.

"We have a lot of considerations to take into account in looking for a location," Ms. Kirby said, including pressure from food suppliers. For instance, the co-op's largest distributor requires a consistent and accessible location for its 18-wheeler to deliver food.

"When we moved in the past, they were very unhappy," Ms. Kirby said. "Without them, we are nothing. There are other distributors out there; most of them won't touch a co-op. We are like a stepchild, so to speak."

Now the co-op has been offered the use of a warehouse space at no cost. But since no children are allowed at that site, parents who cannot find baby-sitters will have difficulty picking up their food and fulfilling the work requirement.

And because the warehouse space is available only from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., instead of the longer hours enjoyed at the Interfaith Center, working families may face similar difficulties.

The smaller time frame will change many of the co-op's longtime procedures.

In the past, members were allowed to "min and max" -- that is, order a minimum of one item from a case of 12 while promising to buy at least four items, if necessary, to help the co-op purchase the whole case. Now, splitting cases may not be possible with less time available to distribute the food.

Co-op jobs will also change with the reorganization. Jeannie Smith, co-op membership coordinator, said it will not be accepting new members for awhile.

"It's going to change how I operate," said Ms. Smith, who home-schools her three children. "But my family relies on the things we get from the co-op. We'll find a way."

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