Livability Suffers Another Blow in Cleveland with Loss of Food Co-op

After 43 years, the Cleveland Food Co-op, the only grocery store in the University Circle neighborhood of Cleveland, has closed its doors.

With the loss of the Food Co-op, Cleveland loses another piece of livability. Photo: Cleveland.com

While the Plain Dealer coverage blames the Co-op’s seemingly shaky business model, it misses the point: “After 43 years, the Cleveland Food Co-op…appears to have sold its last organic vegetable,” the story begins, reading like the latest installment in the overly nostalgic Cleveland Remembers series.

The Cleveland Food Co-op, however, should not be regarded as a quaint throwback to an era when bona-fide hippies roamed Euclid Avenue and environs, a place that’s rightfully been put out of business by big-box stores like Whole Foods. Rather, the Food Co-op was a crucial outlet for low-income people to access healthy food. It was cheap and about as conveniently located along a major public transit line as you’re likely to find in Cleveland.

Wait, you might say. Back the turnip truck up, please. Healthy food? Everyone knows that low-income people can’t afford to eat healthy food. Tara Parker-Pope told me, so it must be true!

Baloney.

I know that it is perfectly possible to eat healthy food on a budget because I relied on the Food Co-op while I was on unemployment during the summer and fall of 2009. Every week the unemployment office would deposit a whopping $250 onto a state-issued debit card (what my friend Steve referred to as “the Sadness card”). I would buy some five-ride RTA bus tickets and I would walk to the rapid station from my home on the west side, and I’d head over to the East 120th Street rapid station, a block from the Food Co-op. (If I was lucky and didn’t linger too long, I could get back on the same transfer, thus saving $2.50.)

What I bought, I bought in bulk. I had learned to do this as a poor college student ten years prior, living on $600 a month. I did not buy anything fancy. I bought dried beans and rice or barley, depending on which was cheaper per pound. I bought whatever fruits were cheapest and whatever vegetables were cheapest, maybe a can of tomatoes. I didn’t buy milk, meat, or eggs because they were expensive. I didn’t buy anything organic because I couldn’t afford it, and you don’t need to eat organic in order to eat healthy. For calcium, I relied on a bottle of multivitamins my mother-in-law had given us for Christmas.

I typically spent between $11 and $30 for two people.

Without a doubt, the unparalleled variety offered by the big-box suburban natural foods stores such as Whole Foods and the Mustard Seed Market hurt the Food Co-op financially. Both were shiny, bright, and overflowing with bounty for the virtuous shopper.  You could get not just organic lemons but organic boutique marshmallows and a large selection of fancy beer and wine — something that the Co-op just did not have.

But the big box stores also hurt the Co-op because they were seen as more convenient, as easier places to drive to. They were closer to freeway exits. (Though personally I can’t help but see something hypocritical in driving out to the sprawling suburb of Solon to buy organic lemons. Or in buying Geauga County cheeses from a corporate conglomerate based in Austin. But I digress.)

One of the problems with the Food Co-op, says Nature’s Bin executive director Scott Duennes in the PD article, was always parking. Of course this is a problem, because the reasonably well-to-do, who once made up a large part of the Co-op’s customer base, nearly always drive cars.

Well, you might say, you can hardly expect people to use public transit here. We are a car culture. It is much easier to drive!

While I understand this line of reasoning — as someone who has lived here without a car for four years, I can tell you that it is usually easier to drive, if you can afford it — it does not inspire the kind of confidence in Cleveland’s future that I’ve so badly wanted to believe in. It reinforces the lack of forward-thinking momentum we saw earlier this year when Governor Kasich cancelled the 3-C Project (and dismissed its proponents as a “train cult”). The Food Co-op was located not just along one of our three existing train lines, but along the HealthLine route — and the HealthLine, you’ll recall, was Cleveland’s biggest investment in public transit infrastructure in a generation. The Co-op’s failure in spite of this is as much an indictment of their business model as it is of our potential as a public transit culture.

But maybe I’m just a stubborn, mindless participant in Kasich’s “train cult.”

Or worse, a filthy, bean-eating hippie.

Christine Borne is the editor-in-chief of The Cleveland Review, an online literary magazine dedicated to the literature of the Rust Belt. According to her membership card, she joined the Cleveland Food Co-op on September 9, 1999.

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