Cuyler-Warren's Consumer Buying Club Offers Co-op Prices

New York's Cuyler-Warren Consumer Buying Club provides the neighborhood with fresh groceries at co-op prices.
July/August 1970
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I didn't know how bad conditions were in our neighborhood until, 1968, when I found some mangy-looking fruit surrounded by green flies in a local store. Then a friend and I discovered the wholesale food markets and bought a basket of really good tomatoes.

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Just like light shows and sideburns, the co-op idea is spreading from the alternate culture into straight society. Lynn Sherr reported on the trend in a recent Associated Press story:

"There's a grocery 'store' in a Brooklyn garage which scrimps on brown bags, charges two cents each for egg cartons and sells top quality sirloin for 98 cents a pound."

"At the chain supermarket three blocks away, brown bags and egg cartons are free, but sirloin costs $1.49 a pound."

"The 'store' is the Cuyler-Warren Consumer Buying Club - a food cooperative in a racially mixed area where shoppers claim to save up to 30 per cent a week on meat, eggs, fruit and vegetables."

The syndicated article goes on to say that New York Mayor John Lindsay's Commission on Inflation and Economic Welfare has praised the C-W co-op and recommended that the city encourage and assist similar food buying clubs.

Five housewives, under the direction of Mrs. Kittie Brown, organized the C-W co-op over a year ago in Gowanus, a hardcore poverty section of Brooklyn.

Mrs. Brown says, "I didn't know how bad conditions were in our neighborhood until, 1968, when I found some mangy-looking fruit surrounded by green flies in a local store. Then a friend and I discovered the wholesale food markets and bought a basket of really good tomatoes for a fraction of the neighborhood grocery's price. That did it! Five of us put up $5.00 each and, with the original $25.00, started buying and reselling peaches, string beans and tomatoes."

The co-op originally weighed all produce on a set of bathroom scales and sold it at night in a church kitchen. Now the garage store is open all day Friday and serves 67 members and a number of non-members who are permitted to shop without paying the co-op fee.

The C-W operation is pretty typical for a food co-op. Anyone who wants to purchase must fill out an order blank and turn it in by 5:00 p.m. Wednesday. On Thursday, members of the co-op staff tally up quantities and place bulk orders for meat with a wholesale butcher for Friday delivery.

Mrs. Brown and a volunteer or two usually buy all fruits and vegetables from one of New York's wholesale produce markets at 6:00 a.m. on Friday morning. The purchases are hauled back to Brooklyn in a faded green station wagon.

By 9:30 a.m. all the food is neatly stacked along the walls of the former garage. At 10:00 a.m., the doors are opened and black, white and Puerto Rican housewives begin wandering in to pick up their orders . . . and, maybe, something extra. The co-op makes it a practice to purchase more than the total of Wednesday's orders: The dewy freshness and low prices of CW's produce almost always guarantee a sell-out.

A recent comparison of C-W and local supermarket prices is quite interesting: At the co-op extra large eggs were 69 cents a dozen; lettuce, 25 cents a head; yams, 2 for 29 cents; tomatoes, 30 cents a pound. Three blocks away, the chain store was charging 89 cents a dozen for jumbo eggs, 35 cents a head for lettuce, 19 cents each for yams and tomatoes had a price of 49 cents a pound.

Price alone does not tell the whole story, however. Quality is just as important. Mrs. Brown says, "What we really want is good quality food at a price people can afford. And our quality can't be beat."

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