How a Co-op Makes Community in Ithaca

“Human Chain” of GreenStar members

photo courtesy GreenStar Co-op
On March 12, 1983 a “Human Chain” of GreenStar members moves the inventory of the Fifth Street Store to new site at Cayuga and Farm Streets – a distance of 8 blocks.

GreenStar, a natural foods cooperative established in 1971, has more than 13,000 member-owners and operates in three locations in Ithaca. In 2018, they generated just over $20 million in sales, with 26 percent of those from products grown, made, or produced within 100 miles of Ithaca. Among other sustainability initiatives, GreenStar owns a remotely located solar farm and has committed to using 100 percent solar power for all operations, including heat, by the end of 2019. In 2018, the co-op donated nearly $50,000 to community organizations large and small and offers further local support through a non-profit arm, GreenStar Community Projects, whose mission is bringing food justice and food security to all residents in the surrounding areas.

A supporter of local farms and producers from its inception, GreenStar has active vendor relationships with over 270 local producers. In 2018, the Co-op stocked 5,320 local (within 100 miles) products on the shelves, with 4,660 more that were produced or grown regionally (defined as within 300 miles of Ithaca). Last year, the Co-op sold 21,283 gallons of local milk, 12,994 pounds of local tofu, 8,583 bunches of local kale — and 111,232 dozens of local eggs!

GreenStar currently operates a flagship store in the city’s West End, along with two smaller locations, one downtown (opened in 2004) and the other in Collegetown (opened in 2016), a neighborhood adjoining Cornell University. In spring of 2020, the flagship store will relocate to a spot just four blocks north of its current location, tripling its overall footprint and doubling its sales area.

12th Moon, an artist and astrologer, has been an integral part of the community at GreenStar Cooperative Market in Ithaca, NY, for many years. He has served in roles from member-worker volunteer to member of the Co-op’s Board of Directors, both as committee member and as President. A long-time member of GreenStar’s Expansion Committee, 12th Moon has participated in the relocation process from start to finish. We asked him some questions about his involvement with GreenStar and the cooperative movement in general.

Can you give us some background about yourself and where you’re from?

Labor Day Ice Cream Social

photo courtesy GreenStar Co-op
12th Moon and co-op employee/Council member Laura Buttenbaum stand ready to dish up ice cream at GreenStar’s Labor Day Ice Cream Social, held annually to celebrate the co-op’s workers.

I was born in Pittsburgh and raised in the Pittsburgh area and then Manhattan for my school years. Around the time I was two or three years old, my father became the general manager of a farmer’s cooperative dairy plant. He was very much into the cooperative business model. We would literally visit cooperatives on vacation, usually worker-owned cooperatives. He put that sense into me. He was also a foodie — he had been a food science major at Penn State — and so he was always directing me toward good food.

What brought you to the Ithaca area, and why did you decide to get involved at the Co-op?

I moved up here after art school. I was painting large works and looking for a loft that my partner and I could afford. We found one nearby and moved up in ’76, and early in ’77 I discovered GreenStar, which was called the Grain Store at that time. I’ve lived places where I had to shop in four different places to get the things I wanted — to find organics, and bulk, and herbs. So I joined GreenStar then, and I’ve been a member for as long as I’ve lived up here — I did live downstate for about ten years in the time since. I’ve been a member worker volunteer for the past twenty years, though I recently gave it up. I got interested in joining our Board of Directors, which we call the Council, when I turned 56. I realized, as an astrologer, that I was going into my third cycle in life, and I wanted to up the ante. In my work as an astrologer I counseled individuals, so I was looking for more community involvement. In 2005, I applied for an opening on Council and I was appointed seven days after my 56th birthday — and I’ve been on Council since then.

What kind of member worker volunteer jobs have you done?

I started off in Facilities doing cleaning, and soon switched to an afternoon shift stocking dry grocery goods out on the floor. I did that for 20 years. Working on the floor stocking groceries was a great involvement, but taking it up to Council and working with leaders of other organizations in town was something that seemed like the right thing to do and the opportunity was there.

Can you speak more about the various positions and responsibilities you have held within Council?

Six months after joining Council, I became vice president, and a year later, in 2006, I became president — and over the next ten years, I was president for nine of them. I’ve served on every committee we’ve had except for Ombuds. I’ve been on the Expansion Committee all along, still am. I was on Membership Committee for years, I was on Governance, I’ve been on Finance for a few years, Personnel for about five years — all of these overlapping — I was often on three or four committees at a time. Because I’m crazy. (laughs)

Was having a certain level of involvement at GreenStar, or any co-op, a personal goal for you?

Yes. Having grown up with a consciousness about co-ops, the idea of supporting and helping other co-ops, whether existing or startups, doing whatever we can do to support other co-ops, any kind of co-ops — I’m with my dad. I consider cooperatives the only democratic business model.

With co-ops being so important to you, have you been involved in co-ops outside of GreenStar?

I belonged to a very small co-op in Westchester County and I belonged to the High Falls Food Co-op outside of New Paltz when I lived in the Woodstock area. My youngest two kids were homeschooled, so we were members of a homeschool cooperative at one point. I was involved a little bit with advising the students who opened a cooperative grocery store up at Cornell, and involved a bit with one of the housing co-ops here.

As a Council member, I’ve been working with co-ops in other states and other parts of the country as well. When I first started going to the CCMA (Consumer Cooperative Management Association) conferences in 2009, I was all ears and eyes wide open, trying to absorb stuff and find out how other co-ops work. In 2010 I started going to Cooperative Board Leadership Development Co-op Cafés and more leadership training and so forth, and by 2012 the National Cooperative Grocers representative at CCMA, instead of taking me to people to learn stuff, she started bringing people to me. People were asking us to come to their co-ops, they were talking to us by phone, and having in-person discussions with me at conferences and workshops. It was a pretty interesting change-around. By 2012, GreenStar was really standing out, because we’d made some real advances, and we were headed toward more. Opening our Collegetown location, and now this bigger relocation and expansion are just part of it all.

What are some instances where you’ve seen GreenStar go above and beyond to meet a need for the community?

For three or four years now at CCMA we’ve given workshops talking about two programs we’ve done that are just fantastic. The FLOWER program [Fresh, Local & Organic Within Everyone’s Reach — GreenStar’s low-income discount program] has been underway for several years now, and we’ve been able to give many people a discount — that’s been wonderful, fantastic. We use the criteria of other government assistance programs that people may be receiving, so we don’t need to access their financial information, and that includes Pell Grants, which has been great for our Collegetown location.

Also, in 2011 we started working with community leaders of color from various community organizations. We took their advice on how to change our interview material, our postings, and our statement of inclusion. When they saw we had done those things, they asked us to pass along job postings, and they sent people to us. So we started employing more and more people of color in the stores — over two years, the change was just incredible. That seems to be well recognized to most of the community, and it certainly is fulfilling to me personally. When I first got on Council, in 2005, I was asked how I felt about the diversity in GreenStar — well, we weren’t doing real good. So what to do? We didn’t know how to make that connection. Once we listened and worked with people, then we were given much more regard, and it really changed our store and how it looked and how accommodating it was for people. So we’ve done workshops about that effort as well.

Are there other areas where you’re proud of the work that the Co-op has done?

About four years ago, we were the first grocery store to become Food Justice Certified by the Agricultural Justice Project — I mean, bam. That’s a big one.

In 2007 we started GreenStar Community Projects, our non-profit affiliate, that has been working in the community to bring not only information about food and cooking, but has actually been bringing food to kids in the schools, kids in the neighborhood —free healthy food in the summer when kids are not in school. We also participate in a program that gets fresh food into the schools, and just last year, GSCP started a community garden in conjunction with a local credit union.

We’ve been a real hub for the community in a lot of ways. Obviously around healthy foods and organics, but also we have a program of cooking as well as health and wellness classes, we have public space that we rent out that was sorely needed in our community. Our member labor program is unusual for a co-op at all, let alone one our size. It’s another way people can get a good price on their groceries, but it’s a very rewarding experience to work with your fellow cooperators and neighbors and get to know people — I can’t go through the store without seeing someone I’ve worked next to. Council work is so separate, for me, being a member worker really gives me a grounding foundation in the store and how it’s operating.

What stands out to you as an example of a way in which the community has supported GreenStar over the years?

When we moved into our previous store, we literally moved almost everything from the old location by hand, hand to hand, via a big chain of people. Then when that store burned down in 1992, the community came together incredibly. They loaned the Co-op a big mess of money, they stood faithfully by. It was at least six months before our current store opened up, and when it did, everybody was like, “It’s so huge, how can we possibly deal with this?!” Within four years, we were maxing out, and we started the expansion committee in 1996 because we were already hitting the sides of the building.

GreenStar Fire - 1992

photo courtesy GreenStar Co-op
In 1992 GreenStar’s store burned down, but the community put up money for an even bigger store.

How does it feel to see this new store finally come to fruition after the many years of expansion work?

Yeah — 14 years for me. I remember being in an expansion workshop at CCMA several years ago, and at one point the leader was saying that if you open a new co-op, you want to get at least 10 to 15 dollars a square foot in sales. He looked at me and asked, “How much is GreenStar making now?” At that point it was something like 22 or 25 dollars, and now it’s 30-something. The other people there were like, “Wow, that’s really impressive!” He said, “Yeah, it’s impressive, it means the parking lot’s crowded, the aisles are crowded, people are trying to work while people are trying to shop, and it’s crazy!”

I cannot tell you how many places that either I or the general manager and I went to look at that were presented as possibilities for us, and absolutely none of them would work. But we kept looking and trying and thinking, and the Collegetown opportunity arose after many, many years of work and going through zoning and planning boards and all of that. In 2016, we opened that store, after eight years of work. A construction manager who oversaw that build and was connected with the developers we’re now working with immediately approached us about working on this location that we are shortly moving to. It’s been three years in the works and it looks like we’re going to be there soon! I just toured the site yesterday. Since I’ve done building and renovation work and I know floor plans and all that, I walked in and I immediately knew what I was looking at — it was great to see. They’re already putting the sheetrock up. The new space is going to be such an improvement for the shoppers — to be able to park, to be able to get through the aisles, to have a wider selection of products, including more ethnic possibilities, more special diet possibilities, more space to help our local farmers and producers — it’s great.

What does it mean to you to support the local economy as part of a cooperative?

We have always been looking for relationships with our local farmers, but farmers are just one part of it — I’ve met the local herbalists who make the tinctures that are on the shelf in GreenStar, the people making soap. When I moved back here in 1999, I became involved with the local NOFA group and started meeting young people interested in starting farms — well, they are running farms around here now, and I’ve seen them grow and grow and grow. We have so much produce that comes from local farms and local growers. In 2006 we funded two big hoophouses for Stick and Stone Farm, under an agreement that they would pay us back partially in produce. That same year, we started renting a warehouse space that came with a huge walk-in refrigerator, so we started renting out storage space for farmers. When we did some renovation and put in a freezer, we offered space in the same way. It’s important to remember that Ithaca also has a fantastic farmers market, where farmers can obviously get more money for their stuff, but we don’t have a battle with the farmers market — in fact, we host them in the winter in our events space. We have a healthy local incubator program for farmers — it’s a really vibrant community. We’re really lucky. If only it wasn’t so darn cold in the winter. (laughs)

What problems do you see GreenStar having a role in solving in the future?

Ithaca Real Food Co-op’s Saturday food distribution

photo courtesy GreenStar Co-op
The harvest overflows weekly in the fall of 1980 at Ithaca Real Food Co-op’s Saturday food distribution.

On a lot of levels it’s just continuing and expanding on the efforts we’ve been doing around helping low-income people, around diversity and inclusion issues. A big one I see coming up for the new store is the need to increase our product line so that we can accommodate more people’s wants and needs. We have a great opportunity to do that. Having a real teaching kitchen classroom is going to be great, for everything from teaching kids simple recipes to different kinds of cooking for adults, and more health and wellness classes.

Are there ways in which you feel the reach of co-ops in people’s lives can be expanded?

In 2011 I was invited to a class called “Alternative Business Models” at Ithaca College to present on co-ops. I asked the class how many of them knew what a co-op was — maybe two kids out of forty raised their hands. I gave them handouts from the store that we use in workshops and classes to teach about co-ops. I spoke to the basic democratic differences between co-ops and a capitalist structure, where the money goes and where it doesn’t go, and the care for principles and values that cooperatives have — we’re not just looking at the food people consume, but also at the workers in the store, and those who produce the food. We’ve also done work with classes up at Cornell, and they came away with a very good understanding of cooperatives, which they’re not getting from the university.

Part of it is broadening people’s understanding as to the different kinds of cooperatives there are. For two years, our General Manager, Brandon, and I participated in a regional New York-state inter-co-op gathering up in Syracuse — there were people from worker co-ops, mobile home housing community co-ops. I found out a statistic I had never known before, which is that 75 percent of the geographic United States is supplied by electricity co-ops. There are distribution co-ops, agricultural co-ops. Co-ops were huge after the Great Depression and helped so many people. I would love to see it all expand. The capitalist model, feeding the one percent — forget working-class people at this point, there’s just people making a lot of money and people making hardly any. And that’s just wrong. And it’s just going to lead to another major depression, and co-ops will be there, so we can rebuild.

How do you see co-ops benefitting people’s lives beyond food?

We offer living wage jobs to all these people, we have a great benefits package, we keep our money here — it doesn’t go to Rochester, or corporate headquarters in Arkansas or wherever. We have a range of salary from lowest-paid to highest-paid of 1 to 4 — we don’t have a GM making 300, or 3000, times what the normal working dude is making here. It’s just a whole different ball game. And it’s all about community — we have 13,000 members. We’re supported by community. Our West End store makes 80 percent of its sales to members, and it’s 75 percent between all three stores. The community’s been really supportive of us, and we’ve been really supportive of the community, and it shows. All of that is part of what a co-op is, or should be.

The more we get community members to sit down, across from each other, with some food, and maybe a beer — it’s local, we’ve got breweries! — the more we get people to just know each other, the stronger our community is, the more inclusive we’re going to be. You start to meet farmers, look for their stuff — that’s something I don’t see happening in other places. I think it’s fantastic. Even though I’m not involved with the produce department or purchasing or any of that, I see farmers I know delivering their stuff to the store, I get to say hi and talk to them for a minute, I see their kids grow up — we’re mutually benefitting from the relationship. That’s what makes community.