Gregory Berlowitz wants to know where his food comes from. Whether its veggies without pesticides, or milk from cows that haven’t been fed antibiotics, he’d rather have organic food at an affordable price. That’s why Berlowitz is spearheading an effort to start a community-run grocery on the North Side, known as a food co-operative.
The food co-op is basically a large grocery store owned by a collective group of residents. Anyone can shop at the co-op, but members will receive special discounts. Its members are technically owners who buy in with a fee.
Members of an existing food co-op in Urbana make a one-time investment of $60. All of the money goes back into the co-operative and is distributed in discounts, employee wages and improvements. The expanded grocery store had a grand opening on Monday and uses more than 20 suppliers to provide produce, dairy and bread for the full-service grocery.
The focus in nearly every co-op is to build community around local, healthy food.
“It’ll only happen with a community effort,” Berlowitz said. “And almost everything will be up to the people that help me build it.”
Berlowitz hopes that by operating as a co-operative, rather than a corporation trying to make a profit, the organization can have a scale of product that’s affordable for all budgets.
The Rogers Park resident began planning the co-op four months ago and launched an informational website Feb. 6. Since then, the concept has exploded.
More than 5,000 people have seen the Facebook page and about 100 people have already RSVP’d to the two informational meetings planned for February and March.
“I think it’s the right time and talking to people around the state that are building co-operatives, people are getting more interested in knowing where their food comes from,” he said.
But residents will have to be patient. Berlowitz estimates 2 to 6 years for the concept to become reality. It took Logan Square’s co-op— Dill Pickle—five years to build. When it opened in late 2010, the store had to close the following weekend because it sold out of merchandise, ABC News reported.
"It was just the feeling of a place where I knew that good people were making decisions about what to buy and what not to buy," member-owner Holly Birnbaum told ABC News.
About 500 residents donated and raised $150,000 to kick-off the grocery store.
While the group will decide the final location of Chicago’s co-op, Berlowitz envisions a space south of Foster and north of Irving Park Road, between Clark and Western avenues. That means the co-op could be located in or very near Lincoln Square and Ravenswood.
“The idea is to be as central as possible on the North Side,” he said. “There’s an absence of availability in that area with tons of schools, families and churches.”
Getting through the bureaucratic and legal technicalities is simple for Berlowitz, who has a background in environmental law.
He’s also spent time working at Blackbird, where chef and owner Paul Kahan developed relationships with local farmers. That’s when Berlowitz became interested in learning where his food came from.
Just after leaving Blackbird in the early 2000s, Berlowitz started a food buying club. Though it only grew to about 20 people, the idea of starting a co-op originated within that organization.
Food awareness is something Berlowitz is trying to spread throughout the city, and not just with the co-op. He also sits on a newly-formed Chicago Public Schools food advisory committee. The group was created to collect parent input on how to improve school food.
Berlowitz said he was surprised to find no mention of organic food. With two kids in CPS, he hopes to change how the school system thinks about its food products.
The Chicago Co-op is hosting two informational meetings, one Feb. 27 at Chase Park Auditorium and the other March 7 at Sulzer Library. RSVP here.