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By Tracie McMillan

City Limits • Aug. 21, 2006

From beneath a purple awning emblazoned with “East New York Bargain$ For Less,” a handful of local residents are working to put a fresh spin on its previous tenant’s declaration by opening the neighborhood’s first food cooperative.

By mid-September, volunteers and staff from the Local Development Corporation of East New York hope to open the doors on a member-run grocery store featuring high-quality fresh produce, as well as bulk dry goods and other prepared foods. It’s the latest in a series of efforts by the East New York Food Policy Council, a project of the LDC, and other local activists to bolster access to fresh, healthy food in East New York.

“One of the primary aims is to educate people about what to eat and how to eat,” said Marlene Wilkes, an East New Yorker for 25 years, who helped clear out the co-op’s retail space for painting in early August. Activists hope to hold educational programs at the cheap, high-quality grocery store, and in the process thwart the spread of obesity and diabetes — both of which occur in East New York at significantly higher rates than the city’s average.

And they simply want to provide good fruits and vegetables locally, which isn’t easy at present, Wilkes said. “You’ll find it’s never good quality stuff,” she said. “Even at the Pathmark, you wouldn’t get it very fresh.”

At the co-op, “the intention is to have as much organic product available as possible,” said Salima Jones-Daley, an organizer with LDC. But the 1,800 square-foot storefront on New Lots Avenue will still contain mass-marketed food. “One key factor is to still maintain affordability, and also food items that appeal to the community,” said Jones-Daley. To that end, some of the stock will come from local community gardens, particularly West Indian produce staples like callaloo, a leafy vegetable common in Caribbean cooking, and collard greens.

Once members join the co-op, they’ll be expected to work a few hours each month in exchange for prices as low as 20 percent above wholesale. Markups in supermarkets and specialty stores range from 40 to 75 percent above wholesale, according to Donald Alexis, a coordinator at the Park Slope Food Coop, who has been consulting in planning meetings with the East New Yorkers.

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