THE GREATEST symbol of hope for the beleaguered downtown business district in Chester isn't the fancy new soccer stadium or the new casino along the riverfront.
For people like LarRaine Branch, who's lived here for 46 years, or octogenarian Thelma K. Haskins, in residence since 1953, hope blooms in the shape of a beautiful bunch of fresh collards or a tray of what Haskins calls "chicken hips," all-natural Bell & Evans chicken legs and thighs. Those are just a few of the items on the shelves at the Chester Co-op, a community-owned grocery store that brings healthy and fresh food and staples into the heart of town.
"What does this place mean to me?" said Branch. "It means everything to me. To see the co-op grow and come to life helped me regain my faith in what could be. People like me who knew Chester when it was a great city still see a place worth saving, a place that is worth something. And why shouldn't we be able to shop in our own community?"
The last supermarket in Chester closed 17 years ago, leaving only neighborhood bodegas in its place. Chester's economic woes, kick-started back in the '50s and '60s with the loss of shipping and manufacturing jobs, are written in the vacant storefronts and shuttered businesses in the once bustling downtown. The city's crime rate is worrisome; about half its young people never finish high school. This was the scene that greeted Tina Johnson when she returned to her hometown in 2005 after living and working in Mexico and India for more than a decade.
"I came back to be with family, my mom lives here, my father's family lives here," said Johnson. "But there was no place to buy fresh food. I could get grapes and bananas in the Himalayas, but not in Chester? That seemed crazy."
The idea for the co-op came up at a luncheon she attended, Johnson recalled. After listening to a local doctor discuss nutrition, one attendee stood up and said, "I'd like to eat healthier, but I don't have a food option in the city of Chester." She, like many Chester residents, didn't have a car. In the ensuing discussion, the idea of a co-op was raised.
"By the end of the meeting, it was, 'When are we starting the co-op?' " Johnson said. "I started doing some research and looking at this business model as a viable option."
What she found was a model that appealed on many levels. A food cooperative is self-sustaining. It promotes self-reliance and independence within its members and the community, fosters a sense of pride and delivers a much-needed service. Members feel a real sense of ownership in the process, paying a one-time fee to belong, meeting regularly to set policies and make decisions and earning access to lower-than-average prices by working a set number of hours every month.
"We just started asking the question, 'Why not?' " said Johnson. "Most co-ops are in communities with higher incomes than Chester. But why couldn't we have one? People are always saying what you can't do, or that's just the way it is. But why couldn't we start a business that met our needs?
"The only way to start creating community wealth is to invest in the community in which you live."
Slowly, with Johnson leading the charge, the idea took shape. Opened in the back of a truck in 2007 with 13 members, the co-op had a few different homes until a grant from the Reinvestment Fund funded a move to a 3,000-square-foot storefront at 512 Avenue of the States. Now at 260 members, the co-op has one paid staff member, Johnson, as its general manager.
The new location, complete with a parking lot, opened March 12. Besides a $50 joining fee, members pay a one-time investment fee, $200 per family. That fee can be stretched over as many payments as necessary. Also each member commits to working two and three-quarters hours a month doing things like food prep, stocking shelves, maintaining the parking lot and working the cash register. "Members understand the value of their investment, " said Johnson. "They see the benefits."
Inside, members can have a cup of fair-trade coffee in the cheery cafe, which is also open to the public, and sells salads, wraps and locally sourced pastries. Here, too, membership has its benefits. For instance, a large bottle of water is marked $1.50, but members pay just 68 cents. Soda isn't sold here; members filled shelf space with food instead of sugary drinks.
The brightly lighted store, painted in shades of citrus, is a pleasant place to shop. One wall is taken up with beautifully displayed fresh fruit and vegetables. There's a small freezer case that includes vegetarian entrées, a dairy case with cheeses, Greek yogurt, brown eggs, a spot for deli meats and homemade prepared dishes like vegetarian lasagna and baked chicken, along with a catering menu for off-site parties.
Nutty granola and hummus with pita chips are a few healthy snack options. Whole-grain bread heads one aisle. Dried legumes, spices, canned soups and vegetables and dry goods round out the inventory. Where possible, Johnson sources locally, a familiar idea since both sides of her family have farming roots. Organics are generally out of her budget, but members voted to carry pricier Bell & Evans chicken, raised humanely without antibiotics or growth hormones, over cheaper supermarket brands.
The chicken is still affordable because volunteers break down family packs into smaller portions, allowing someone like Haskins to buy a single portion of her favorite "chicken hips."
Annie Long raves about the chicken, too. Long, a new member who moved to Chester five years ago from Philadelphia, has her own business, Top It Off, across the street from the co-op, offering sewing classes, custom designs and clergy robes. "I was used to well-stocked stores," she said. "Chester had nothing like that. I don't have a car, so where do I get the potatoes and onions I need for dinner?"
Johnson takes issue with the idea that people in Chester rely on fast food or convenience foods to feed their families. "We cook, we spend money on food. A family of four could easily spend $300 a month on food. Until the co-op opened, we just spent it somewhere else, outside of our community."
Founding member Will Richan has lived in Chester since 2002. Long retired, he's been onboard from the start, helping stock shelves, sweep and mop floors, whatever it takes. "It's too easy for people to miss the downtown area when they come to the stadium or to Harrah's," he said. "Maybe this place can help bring things back. At first I wasn't sure it was going to work, but Tina stuck with it."
Although she gave up her own, higher-paying business to manage the co-op, Johnson says that it's a labor of love. "I believe in this," she said. "And I'm here to serve the members." She's always available to listen, to take a look at a puzzling bill or piece of paperwork, and give a hug when needed. The store offers a community room for group meetings and events like an upcoming poetry reading by a local writer.
"This is a good place to be," said Branch, who always works more than her required hours per month. "I eat more fresh vegetables now than I have in a long time. I can walk here, so I get exercise. And I get to meet people from all walks of life and ethnic and economic backgrounds."
She's lost 15 pounds, too.
But even more than fresh food and camaraderie, the co-op has given something back to Branch that she hadn't felt for a long time. "My voice matters here," she said. "All of our voices matter. We all have a vote. There's something always something to work out, something to talk about. And you know, everybody enjoys being heard."