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Fresh idea sprouts in Cheltenham

Crunch time: Momentum builds for a food co-op being conceived to nourish feeling of community.

Turnout was high at a meeting to gauge support for a community food cooperative in Cheltenham Township. Its likely home will be the former Ashbourne Market in Elkins Park, across from the Elkins Park train station.
Turnout was high at a meeting to gauge support for a community food cooperative in Cheltenham Township. Its likely home will be the former Ashbourne Market in Elkins Park, across from the Elkins Park train station.Read moreED HILLE / Inquirer Staff Photographer

By late summer 2009, if all goes as planned, consumers in Cheltenham Township will have a new food-buying cooperative.

An attorney filed papers Feb. 21 to create Our Community Cooperative of Cheltenham Township, a business whose policies and food choices will be set by its members.

Among the co-op's likely offerings will be organic fruits and vegetables, kosher products, eco-friendly dry goods, and possibly a juice and coffee bar, its founders say.

"We'd like to be one-stop shopping," said Andrew Schloss, the steering committee's vice chairperson.

Although there are community-supported farms in Montgomery County, it's believed that the Cheltenham co-op would be the first member-driven, food-buying cooperative here.

The co-op's structure, membership rules and location are being determined. But its likely home will be the former Ashbourne Market in Elkins Park, across from the Elkins Park train station.

The market used to serve as a local meeting place, drawing customers who packed the store to buy bagels, especially on Sundays, co-op founders said.

"On Sunday morning, you couldn't park there - you had to walk, it was so crowded," Schloss said.

Rochelle Sauber, a steering committee member, said that township residents missed having a small market with a homey feel within walking distance.

So when Weavers Way Co-op, which was seeking to expand beyond its Mt. Airy store, set up a meeting last December to gauge public interest in a Cheltenham-based co-op, people turned out in droves.

From the 200 who appeared at Elkins Park Library for the session, 13 were chosen for the steering committee, including Jonathan McGoran, communications director of Weavers Way.

After discussion, the panel decided that the new co-op would mimic Weavers Way in some ways, but would operate independently. Weavers Way is providing support and a $4,000 interest-free loan, to be repaid when the fledgling turns a profit.

"There was such great energy going on [in Cheltenham]," McGoran said, "but we decided to have a separate business entity, although we'd be cooperating closely."

Weavers Way was started in 1973 by co-op visionary Jules Timerman. He bought a small $5,000 store at 559 Carpenters Lane in Mount Airy.

Timerman preached the gospel of cooperative buying to all who would listen, and opened once a week to sell preordered produce, honey and nuts to a small group of buy-in members.

Over the years, the co-op's membership expanded to 3,200 households. It now has annual revenues of $7.5 million and employs 60 workers. Timerman died April 3 at age 82.

Weavers Way now sees its mission as creating satellite stores in Philadelphia, and acting as a mentor to co-ops being formed by others.

McGoran said: "We'll be offering our expertise, and putting them in touch with our national distributor. It's not a competitive thing."

The steering committee for the Cheltenham co-op has surveyed 486 township residents on their hopes for the new facility.

A five-page e-mail poll was conducted in April. Respondents were those who turned out for the December meeting, and their friends and neighbors.

Scott Laughlin, the steering committee chairperson, said 87 percent of those polled said they wanted the co-op market to be in Cheltenham.

Respondents were asked to rank a number of guiding principles for the co-op. They chose fresh fruits and vegetables, locally grown produce, ethical practices, and ecologically "green" considerations, Laughlin said.

Most respondents, 57 percent, said they would do more than half their weekly shopping at the co-op if given the chance, Laughlin said.

Rules haven't been written for how the co-op will operate. But at Weavers Way, members pay $30 a year toward a maximum investment of $400. Were they to leave, the investment would be returned.

Each adult in member households is required to work six hours a year, according to Weavers Way's Web site. Whether the new co-op's members will work hasn't been decided.

The next step to be taken likely will be a feasibility study. The steering committee must raise $10,000 to pay for the study, and then begin a membership drive.

Jennifer Brandabur said she would like to see a coffee and juice bar because it would foster social interaction.

"When you look at what Weavers Way has done, it's not just a store; it's a community within a community," Brandabur said.

On a recent day, the small but well-stocked Weavers Way was offering prepared foods, meats and poultry, fish, deli items, dairy, produce, flowers, baked goods and organics.

The aisles were filled with customers, "and it's not even that busy," McGoran said.

Denise Larrabee, of Mount Airy, ate a pasta-and-ham lunch at a cafe table on the sidewalk outside the store, taking in the afternoon sun.

"It's very convenient for me. There's a sense of community. You feel connected. It's like your own little town square," Larrabee said.

For Information

To learn more about the food-buying cooperative planned for Cheltenham Township, visit


and link to Cheltenham Co-op.

To get involved, e-mail