In April 2020, a group of Chenango County residents, spearheaded by MiBy Kim, began meeting weekly to consider the start-up of a food cooperative — a membership-based distribution outlet.
Kim took her inspiration from Ron Zisa, who had recently moved from Brooklyn to become a full-time Norwich resident. Zisa, a former chef, had been a manager for Brooklyn’s Park Slope Food Cooperative. Boasting a membership of 17,000, the Park Slope cooperative is one of the largest food co-ops in the nation.
In July 2020, the Chenango Family Food Coop opened for business in a small red barn behind La Maison Blanche, a bakery-café owned and operated by Kim. Both are at 5420 State Highway 12 in Norwich. The co-op is open once a month for three consecutive days — Fridays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Upcoming days of operation are May 14 to 16.
The co-op is open to the general public. Food prices are the same for both members and non-members. Shoppers are required to wear masks and asked to bring their own totes. The co-op accepts only cash or check.
Like most co-ops, the CFFC offers natural foods and strives to meet certain goals pertaining to social responsibility. Aiming to provide higher quality food at affordable prices, it also focuses on supporting local and regional farmers, producers, and suppliers.
“Even if products are grown elsewhere, they are purchased from a local supplier,” Kim said.
Lessons were learned from forming a co-op simultaneously with the general shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kim said.
“Food sourcing is not something to be taken for granted anymore. We saw how difficult some things were to get. So why not connect with local producers?” she said.
Out of environmental considerations, the co-op minimizes packaging and buys its goods locally, reducing its carbon footprint. While making an effort to source food as locally as possible, the co-op defines its purchasing region as within a 500-mile radius.
Education about food sourcing is another CFFC goal. According to its statement of purpose, the CFFC seeks to “educate and encourage people to have a better community understanding of the importance of consuming local foods.”
“We are trying to build a community as much as a co-op,” Kim said.
The CFFC’s products are largely non-perishable items. Shoppers will find a variety of nuts, seeds, dried fruits, grains, dried beans, flours, rice, coffee, maple syrups and honeys. Specialty items include whole, organic cacao beans, corn nuts, cheddar cheese sticks, cracker mix and more.
In addition to enlisting the Zisa's services, Kim turned to longtime Chenango County residents with pertinent experience. Community members involved include Trellan Smith, co-founder of the Oxford Farmers’ Market; Phil Metzger, a Natural Resources Conservation Service retiree and teacher of holistic management; Canice Paliotta, a community activist and editor of the newsletter “Chenango Links;” Jo Anne-Eppley Wells, former Norwich Weight Watchers coach; David Wells, a retired chemist living New Berlin; and Deb Whitman from the Made in Chenango arts cooperative.
Public response has been positive, Kim said.
“People who have come in are so elated to have something like this in the area. They come to buy a particular item they can’t find anywhere else and are pleased with the quality and prices,” she said.
“It’s fun to go the little red barn and find such high quality and variety of organic products, and the smaller packaging allows you to try different things,” frequent CFFC shopper Diane Gallo said.
The CFFC is actively seeking more members, as well as volunteers for such tasks as packing from bulk to smaller packaging, displaying merchandise and working on the floor with sales. Anyone interested in joining or volunteering may contact the CFFC at chenangofamilyfoodcoop.org/
More information on the co-op is also available by finding ChenangoFamilyFoodCoop on Facebook.