Organic food co-op: dream that's come true, naturally

April 20, 2005|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

The shelves of the Village, the new natural food co-op in Charles Village, aren't yet full. But for Baltimore vegetarians, vegans and organic food consumers who have had trouble filling their pantries, the shop itself is manna from heaven.

Two weeks after its March opening, the store is modestly stocked with bananas, stone-ground wheat flour, buckwheat pasta, garlic, rice and corn spaghetti, yogurt, Valencia onions, popcorn, fair-trade chocolate, Idaho potatoes, dairy-free macaroni and cheese in a box and other staples. A lovely round watermelon nests in a basket in the cozy storefront's window.

As profits are reinvested weekly into the business, which opened on a shoestring budget of $10,000, co-founder Gretchen Heilman envisions the brightly painted space "bursting at the seams" with produce, healthful packaged goods and an apothecary of herbs, tinctures and teas.

A radiant whirlwind of grass-roots activism, Heilman, 29, enlisted dozens of others to support her vision of launching a co-op - a business owned by its members - that would provide organic goods at affordable prices in a location accessible to urban families with few shopping options.

"It's been absolutely exhilarating!" Heilman says of the process. "It's been really fun, building a whole community of people."

Two years ago, Heilman and others opened an organic food buying club called Baltimore Families for Natural Living. Still, she saw a "huge need" for an actual store where other city families and students could purchase inexpensive and locally grown (when in season) produce, she says. Since the Belly food cooperative, a Waverly mainstay, closed its doors more than 10 years ago, no co-op has served Baltimore City, health-food adherents say.

An herbalist and holistic health counselor, Heilman enrolled in a "self expression and leadership training" program that provided the tools and gumption for realizing her goal.

The course taught Heilman how to turn wishful thinking into action through leadership and community building. "You create your world with language," she says.

Step by step, Heilman methodically built the foundation for a co-op. In January 2004, she organized a Day of Renewal, a holistic health expo where she raised money and networked with others who shared her ambition. At the expo, Heilman met Skai Davis, the vegan chef and owner of the Yabba Pot, a Charles Village restaurant, who was also keen on starting a co-op. The two pooled efforts to make it happen.

Months of hard work followed for Heilman, Davis, the co-op board and dozens of volunteers who scrubbed the space next to the Yabba Pot that houses the store, constructed shelves and walls, and transformed the space's exposed brick interior with donated nontoxic paint into a spring-green haven.

Starting the co-op took much more than physical labor. It was a complex effort that required the talents of many. Volunteers with expertise in computer programming, accounting, public-health codes, business practices and other skills also pitched in.

Heilman and her crew tended to minutiae concerning every element of the co-op, from remembering to place a plant in the storefront window, to preparing labels for bagged bulk products to finding a bouncer for one in a series of planned rent parties.

All along, "I just held that vision the entire time," Heilman says of realizing her dream. The co-op had a "soft opening" on March 23, her birthday. "It was the greatest birthday present I could have gotten," she says.

Heilman's vision for the co-op, which so far has 205 members, continues to expand. Soon, a mural depicting a city block alive with urban gardeners and their crops will grace the front wall.

Baskets of healing herbs, to be reached by poles, will line its top shelves. Cooking and nutrition classes are in the planning stages. In May, local organic produce supplied by One Straw Farm in White Hall will supplement that provided so far by Neshaminy Valley Natural Foods.

The co-op is also drawing up a business plan that will assist in its effort to obtain nonprofit status, Heilman says.

She and others also want the co-op to become a model for similar endeavors in a city where they say access to liquor is often easier than access to healthful, fresh food.

The Village plays a "tremendous role" beyond serving its immediate customers, says co-op board member Janna B. Howley, a member of the Baltimore Food System Coalition, a group dedicated to improving food quality and accessibility for city residents.

The co-op is a "valuable part of the coalition that can provide another perspective on what city residents want and need," says Howley, program director for the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"We're trying to create this tremendous network of people who can share resources and collaborate, so we have a greater voice [to reach] residents as well as elected officials," Howley says.

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