photo: courtesy of The Dill Pickle
Kathleen Duffy was tired of schlepping several miles to the nearest Whole Foods to buy organic produce. "In Logan Square, if you don't have a car you have to get on a train and travel four stops north or four stops south to get to a grocery store. Which is ridiculous," Duffy told me over the phone. Since moving to the neighborhood and discovering how limited her options were for healthy food, Duffy fantasized about opening a small health-food store—and quickly realized she couldn't do it on her own.
Unwilling to give up on the idea, she talked with some friends about starting up a food co-op and sent out 20 emails to gauge community interest. Her inbox was flooded with over 300 responses. This was in early 2005, and since then Duffy and a core group of dedicated members have worked steadily to make The Dill Pickle Food Co-op—what will soon be the only member-owned grocery store in Chicago—a reality.
Like any democratic undertaking, planning the co-op has been a slow, painstaking process. "It's very time consuming," Duffy says. "None of us have done anything like this before, so the learning curve was pretty steep. People are trusting us with their money...we don't want to do wrong by that. We take our time to educate ourselves and make the best decisions we possibly can. And no one leaves the table feeling like their voices haven't been heard." After more than three years, the hard work is coming to fruition; The Dill Pickle is now in negotiations with a storefront at 3039 W. Fullerton Avenue—halfway between the California and Logan Square Blue Line stops—and is slated to open in March of 2009. The building owners are enthusiastic about their prospective tenants; permits for a green roof have already been obtained (the Pickle's architect looked into LEED certification, but it was deemed too expensive at this stage in the game). This is a crucial stage in the development of the co-op, so to get the word out and court new members, The Dill Pickle sets up shop at the Logan Square Farmers Market each week, building relationships with local farms and educating the community about the benefits of co-operative ownership.
The benefits abound. By owning a share in a co-op, members make the decisions about what to buy, from whom and how it's distributed. The Dill Pickle's product-selection committee recently held its first meeting to draw up a code of ethics for what foods the store will carry. Each item must meet a standard on the list—organic, locally grown, etc. Future meetings will address ethical issues like what sort of bags the co-op will carry and where they draw the line at packaging. Each and every one of the members (there are about 250 at the moment) is encouraged to voice his or her opinion.
Best of all, when the store starts turning a profit, the money is returned to the owners, keeping profits in the community ("why would you want to send it out to the suburbs?" Duffy asks)—a member's share of the pot is determined by how much he or she shops. Duffy puts it quite simply, "Where else do you get to own the store? The guy who owns Jewel lives in Lake Forest and doesn't really care what happens in Logan Square. When they closed the Dominick's on Belmont, the owners didn't give a crap about the people who live in Logan Square because they don't live here. This is our town, this is what we want and we're gonna do it."
Why aren't there more food co-ops in this city? The question's nagged me since I moved to Chicago seven years ago. Co-ops are a staple of wholesome, local food for college campuses and community-minded towns from Portland to Park Slope, so our City on a Green Hill should be lousy with them, right? Not so. Chicago's one and only food co-op, once located in Hyde Park, shut down not long ago. It was a loss for the community and the co-op legacy; the South Side Store was 75 years old and the first co-operatively owned grocery in the country. However, running a co-op is a lot of work and that responsibility falls in the hands of the members.
With an opening date in sight, The Dill Pickle is redoubling efforts to expand its membership. When I asked Duffy what the membership goal is for next spring she laughed and said, "a million." The realistic number is 500, but the more shareholders pitching in their funds and their energies, the better the new co-op will be. I'm lucky enough to live walking distance from the designated site for the new store, so I plunked down my $50 membership fee as soon as I heard about the place. Considering how many underserved communities need conveniently located grocery stores with healthy options, The Dill Pickle will hopefully flourish and inspire other enterprising Chicagoans to take their food into their own hands.
To learn more about the principles of co-operative ownership, visit the International Co-operative Alliance. Live in Indiana or the 'burbs? There might already be a co-op near you. Find it with the Coop Directory Service.
It took a move from the regimented lawnscapes of the suburbs to the congestion of a major metropolis for Sharon to look twice at what she puts in the trash, down the sink and into her own body. She reports fortnightly on her endeavors to change "greening" from calculated deviation to a practicable way of life. You can contact her here.