Tucked away in a tiny corner of the East Village, barely noticeable to passersby, is a tiny storefront with dusty windows and bright red trim. Rows and rows of carefully bottled spices can be seen through the hazy glass, stacked precariously up to the ceiling. Next to the these are giant bins filled with uncooked grains and buckwheat that come out of dispensaries like candy, alongside buckets of handmade pasta. People stroll among the cramped aisle, filling reusable bags with quinoa or dried fruit. This tiny cave of a grocery is otherwise known as the 4th Street Food Co-op.
If you’ve ever gotten a sudden hankering to try hemp bliss (it’s not what you think), or a strong desire to learn the art of permaculture, then the 4th Street Co-op (58 East 4th Street near Bowery) is the place for you. Their food is organic, vegetarian, ethical, and mainly fair trade. So if you want to feel good about your food and not support mega-corporations like Whole Foods, this is also the place for you.
Technically, a co-op can be any business that is “motivated not by profit, but by service-to meet their members’ need,” according to the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA), an organization that works to promote co-ops through programs like development grants, conferences, trainings, and lobbying.
The co-op business has been quite lucrative recently. The NCBA reports that there are 30,000 cooperative business in the U.S. alone, generating $500 billion in revenues and creating over 2 million jobs. A cooperative business model is not strictly limited to food distribution and agriculture—businesses in the retail, health care, and the electricity industries have employed the model as well.
Benjamin Franklin provided a model for thousands of businesses after him when he created a co-op for fire insurance in 1752—one that is still working today. Stressing the importance of community and volunteer participation, cooperative businesses like 4th Street strive for democratic decision-making above all.
But the 4th Street Co-op, like many other food distributors that emphasize local consumption and reject big corporations, has faced challenges in sticking to its non-profit business model.
“They really try to keep it all local, all organic,” Rundles said. “But a lot depends on the season. The bulk of things are hard to get—some stuff even comes from Mexico or California.”
Even with these challenges, the co-op has been doing well and is continually increasing its membership. For an annual fee, members can get unusual products at a big discount. Health food, like kale, couscous, and granola are co-op staples, but you can also find root beer, raw honey, recyclable panty liners, and if you’re really lucky, some dandelion greens.
So if you want to channel your inner Portlandia character, check out the 4th Street Co-Op.