I’ve been on this Earth-friendly journey for a long time, and some parts of it have gotten a lot easier. Twenty years ago, you couldn’t buy plant-based cleaners or chlorine-free toilet paper at target.com and have them show up on your porch two days later! I saw a tiny ad for Seventh Generation brand products in Mother Jones magazine, sent off for their paper catalog, and bought directly from the company by mail–now, their products are sold in my local supermarket.
It’s great to see greener options and healthier foods becoming more mainstream! But just because mainstream stores sell these things doesn’t mean I shop only at mainstream stores. I still like to support local, independent, small businesses, and there are a lot of good reasons to do so.
East End Food Co-op is one of my favorite local stores, one of the treasures of Pittsburgh. I’ve been shopping there since around the turn of the millennium. It used to be that the co-op sold things I couldn’t get anywhere else or could get only by mail. As those things have begun to turn up in other stores, I’ve bought some of them to encourage the mainstreaming of green and healthy products, but I keep coming back to the co-op, too.
My latest article for Kitchen Stewardship explains all the wonderful reasons to shop at a food co-op and gives lots of tips for co-ops in general. Here are a few things I’ve learned about the East End Food Co-op in particular:
The gritty urban setting is a feature, not a bug.
EEFC is located in Pittsburgh’s North Point Breeze neighborhood, in the lower level of a rehabbed industrial building that also houses several fitness/sports facilities. The co-op’s entrance faces a block of Meade Street with more grim-looking industrial buildings, tall chain-link fences, and crumbling curbs and sidewalks. It doesn’t look like a “nice” place to shop.
But when you get inside, it’s so friendly and colorful! The co-op always smells good, and the lighting is much more pleasant than in big-box stores. But it doesn’t have the tony decor of more expensive stores; it’s just basically clean and well-designed. I love the thoughtful, practical details like little shelves installed on the vertical I-beams to display tiny products like lip balm.
EEFC’s location also means that it is the nearest supermarket to some low-income people who don’t own cars. They can walk to EEFC and find not only a full-service grocery store with fresh produce, dairy, meats, packaged foods, and prepared foods but also a store that focuses on local, organically grown, and healthier foods. The prices of basic foods aren’t always the lowest in town, but they’re not the highest, either–EEFC sure beats shopping in convenience stores! Making healthy food accessible to the urban poor is crucial, and EEFC also supports the community through fundraising and other partnerships.
Oh, and in that scary-looking neighborhood, I’ve never had anyone damage or threaten me or my car, even the times I forgot to lock it. I feel safe there.
That hill is good for me!
The building’s parking lot aligns with the main level, while EEFC is on the lower level, so pushing your shopping cart to the parking lot means ascending this steep hill! (I’m actually surprised at how it looks from the side; it seems steeper when you’re going up it! You can tell by my posture.)
All right, that isn’t easy, but it’s good exercise! Compared to the car-dodging I have to do when leaving some stores with flat parking lots, I prefer this: less stress, more workout.
I also improve my muscle tone and reflexes inside the store, where the floors are not quite level. It’s a lot better now than before the big renovation a few years ago, but there are still spots in the check-out aisles where your cart tries to roll away from you! I put one foot through the lower frame of the cart to anchor it with my ankle.
(If you don’t have the physical ability to handle these challenges, you are still welcome at EEFC! You can get help carrying your groceries and/or use the loading zone right outside the front entrance. Just ask your cashier.)
My strategies for eating in the Co-op Cafe
EEFC’s cafe is a great place to get a hot vegetarian meal, salad, fresh juice, coffee, or a muffin–but it’s awkward that all the foods and drinks are served at the back of the store, you pay for them at the cash registers near the front, and the dining area is at the very front. Here are two tricks I’ve learned:
If you’re just getting coffee, you can drink it while shopping, then place the empty mug on the cashier’s counter to pay at check-out. This also works for any food with a bar-coded price tag. You can’t do it with hot or salad-bar foods that are sold by weight!
To avoid dropping your plate–especially if you’re accompanied by a child and buying multiple plates of food–get a shopping cart. Set your plate flat in the bottom of the cart. Put the child (if small enough) in the baby seat of the cart. It is much easier to push a cart smoothly through the store than to balance a plate full of food while bending over to hold a toddler’s hand!!
Okay, I almost always drive to the co-op, but…
Walking to EEFC from my home is a 5-mile round trip that takes a couple of hours. I can walk that far and enjoy it, if I’m not carrying much weight. There’s no way I could do it with a full week’s groceries, even if I could spare the time.
Pittsburgh’s public-transit system is mostly focused on getting into and out of Downtown, with only a few bus routes traveling north to south across the East End. The bus that provides the most direct route between my home and EEFC runs only every 40 minutes on weekdays (less often on weekends), and I still have to walk a few blocks at each end, totaling 1 1/2 miles in the round trip. The alternative is taking two buses and spending more than an hour in transit.
So, I usually get to the co-op in my hybrid car. Here are two ways to reduce the environmental impact of that trip:
- I can combine it with other errands. Over the years, other stores I like have opened relatively near the co-op: Target, Trader Joe’s, and Aldi. If I’m driving north to go to one of these stores, I consider whether we need anything from the others. Since 2016, my son has been in a mentoring program that meets weekly in the same general area, so rather than driving him there, driving home, and driving back to get him, I spend that hour and a half shopping in the vicinity.
- I can carpool with a friend or pick up some groceries for a neighbor, preventing them from making a separate car trip or helping someone with no car get to the co-op. I’ve done this at least a dozen times over the years and would like to do it more–it’s fun to have a shopping buddy!
Co-op shopping is so satisfying! I’m buying healthy food from a local business, I’m part of a community focused on making the world a better place, and I get a little exercise in the process.