Keeping the Co-op Spirit Upbeat in the Time of Coronavirus
By Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff
The grocery business is hard: long hours, demanding work and not enough pay. No wonder so many food store workers are unhappy, particularly during COVID-19, with inadequate health insurance and a lack of safety protections at their workplaces. What’s more, most workers cannot afford to pay the high rent in the City or to buy the healthy food they sell!
Fortunately, the workers at Other Avenues Food Co-op have more favorable conditions. As the name implies, Other Avenues is a different kind of business. At this 46-year-old worker-owned cooperative, the revenues and the decisions are shared among all workers. Other Avenues offers its workers good financial incentives and an egalitarian work structure. Although the store may experience the same constraints as other small businesses do, the co-op is designed to take care of its workers. Similarly, the workers collectively figure out how to deal with adversities.
Soon after the virus started, Other Avenues’ business spiked dramatically as people stocked up on food, but it has tapered down now. Still, daily sales have been higher during the last three months as compared to the same months of last year. This higher volume of business with the same number of staff is difficult, as hiring and training is tough right now. Then there is the worry about the constant contact with the public. Despite these hurdles, the workers seem to be very upbeat. Together, they decided how to keep the store open; a manager did not make them do it! I interviewed some workers to find out how they manage to have an upbeat attitude and if they can share some optimistic outcomes of this period.
One worker reported that since all workers have a stake in the business, they are all motivated to deal with emergencies – not just “the boss.” From the start, they took the coronavirus threat seriously and teamed up to research solutions. For example, they got help from another co-op on how to close the bulk food section which required constant customer handling. Preemptively, they established a hand-washing station with soap and sanitizer outside the store. Soon after, they hired extra workers to monitor the door during business hours to limit the number of customers inside and keep shoppers at a six-foot distance outside the store while waiting. The door person also cleans every basket and shopping cart. The group decided that creating this extra job was worthwhile in order to alleviate stress from the floor workers.
Another worker told me that Other Avenues’ “seasoned” workers who have been there for more than a decade quickly adapted to giving additional assistance to the new workers. Similarly, the new workers learned faster than they would have done in normal times. “We all had to step up with more responsibility and overtime. At the same time, we all have added support from one another,” she added.
Collaborative business making with regular meetings is a key component of a cooperative. How has the communication process been compromised during COVID-19? Online meetings have been working OK according to two workers who also stressed that in-person communication is very important at Other Avenues and that they miss the face-to-face meetings with their body language components. But it is impossible to keep a six-foot distance with 20 workers! Another worker said that online meetings actually have been more practical for her right now, as she can attend meetings from home and does not have to commute to work on her day off.
One worker added that they also have been mindful with their informal communication. For instance, they often find time to ask questions like “do you need extra break time?”. They share little pleasant moments at work whenever possible.
Not directly related to business, a worker mentioned a positive change in her commute to work. She rides her bike from the Richmond District to the Sunset through Golden Gate Park, which is always pleasant. But this has become more fun with fewer cars on the road and some streets and parts of the park reserved for bikes and pedestrians only. She wishes that some of these changes can continue post-COVID-19.
How are the workers being supported by the community? All workers reported their gratitude for the community. They feel supported by their customers’ loyalty and patience. They feel that their essential work has been recognized and appreciated by the shoppers during this testing period. The customers thank co-op workers for being there and keeping their spirits up. They tell workers that Other Avenues feels safe, not only because the store follows safety protocols and they get served fast but also because they know that the food they purchase here is going to be healing their stress. We all tend to turn inwards and pay added attention to our loved ones and to our bodies during troubled times. This is when a neighborhood health food store becomes a community temple where customers feel secure.
There is also the social aspect of community appreciation. For some customers, grocery shopping has been the only interaction they have had for days, as one worker noted. People have been cut off from socializing and feel uplifted when they come to shop and see familiar faces of the workers and other shoppers. Some customers have given the co-op workers letters of appreciation, hand-made masks and even gifts. New customers who have just found the co-op feel comfortable here during this stressful time because the shop is small and the service is fast, and the co-op meets their needs. They will come back!
For their part, Other Avenues’ workers are keeping safe and hoping to remain healthy so that, among other things, they can continue to serve the Sunset community. They do their best to serve customers, help them to find items and move the line as quickly as possible. There is a special hour reserved from 9 to 10 a.m. for seniors and shoppers with specials needs. And, seniors get a discount every day!
A long-time worker noted that it is good to hear more often that a grocery worker’s job is important. It is time for society to recognize and reward them properly. She added that hopefully we will continue to appreciate the whole line of workers in the food chain – the farmers, farm workers, delivery persons, grocery workers and those who shop and prepare the meals. Food does not magically appear on the table!
Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff, a Sunset District resident, was a worker/owner of Other Avenues Food Coop for more than 35 years. Shanta’s local history book, “Other Avenues Are Possible: Legacy of the People’s Food System of the San Francisco Bay Area” is available at Other Avenues, along with her cookbooks. Shanta writes recipes and articles on food and nutrition. She has a monthly cooking column on the RichmondSunsetNews.com website. She also teaches vegetarian and vegan cooking classes.
Shanta’s “Cooking Together” column with recipes is scheduled to return in September.