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Boston’s first and only worker- and member-owned co-op grocery store opened Saturday, a milestone more than 10 years in the making.
In a world where big grocery stores maximize profits and mom-and-pop bodegas can’t always afford to stock healthy food, the Dorchester Food Co-op has a different recipe for success — one that prioritizes nutrition, access, sustainability, cultural relevance, and community input.
Dorchester residents began talking about a co-op in 2011, envisioning a community hub that offered healthy food and good jobs to people in the neighborhood. In 2012, 192 people signed up to be member-owners of the grocery store that didn’t exist yet.
After years of research, fundraising, and community outreach, the co-op partnered with a local housing developer, VietAID, and in 2020 broke ground on a new development at 195 Bowdoin St.
Fast forward to 2023, and that development (which consists of the store on the street level and 41 units of affordable housing above) is complete. The number of member-owners has risen to over 1,600, the co-op’s shelves are stocked, and a staff of 35 has welcomed its first official customers.
It looks like a regular grocery store from the outside, admits general manager John Santos. “But the co-op is so much more than that.”
In 2018, the last year Boston published neighborhood-level data, 18.1% of Dorchester residents were considered “food insecure” — defined by the Mayor’s Office of Food Justice and the USDA as lacking consistent access “to enough food for an active, healthy life” — compared to the citywide average of 15%.
When the USDA surveyed food insecure American households in 2021, almost half the respondents reported they had lost weight because they couldn’t afford food. More reported having had to eat less or skip meals because they couldn’t afford food.
It’s not a coincidence that some of Boston’s most food insecure neighborhoods, including Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan, also have more Black residents and lower median incomes than the city average. (In Dorchester, the median household income in 2015 was $47,200, compared to the overall Boston median of $55,777. The same year, 44% of Dorchester residents were Black, compared to 23% in Boston overall.)
“There is no accident in food injustice, in food insecurity,” explained Julian Agyeman, a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University.
Boston, like other American cities, was aggressively redlined beginning in the 1930s. The federal government created maps labeling some neighborhoods desirable and others hazardous, and banks used the maps to decide where to underwrite home loans. The “hazardous” areas were overwhelmingly populated by Black Bostonians (as well as other people of color and immigrants), who were effectively barred from home ownership because they couldn’t get a mortgage.
Developers chose the “desirable” areas to build single-family homes and all the neighborhood amenities that go along with them, and avoided the “hazardous” neighborhoods — plunging them into a decades-long spiral of underinvestment and neglect. Though the Fair Housing Act outlawed redlining in 1968, its lasting impacts are evident in the persistent racial divides and wealth disparities of Boston’s neighborhoods.
“These neighborhoods today, the redlined neighborhoods, are where the food deserts are,” Agyeman said. “These are where more people die in heat waves because there’s more large parking lots, large roads, and less tree cover [and] less green space. We have — as a result of the racist urban planning legacy — hunger in our cities. And we cannot separate hunger from the racism that organized our cities.”
The Dorchester Food Co-op was created with these inequities in mind. It aims to drive economic opportunity in its neighborhood by creating jobs and making high-quality food affordable and accessible to residents. Its members and workers own shares of the business, and will eventually reap a share of the profits.
It’s part of a centuries-long tradition of minority-owned co-ops, Agyeman said.
“Cooperatives started in the U.K., in about the 1850s, 1860s. But they were very, very quickly taken up by Blacks in the United States,” he explained. “Why? Because they weren’t able to access ordinary forms of finance.”
Without access to the private sector and government funding available to their white peers, Black business owners turned to community-financed, mutualistic models, Agyeman said.
So many aspects of American culture are organized around a “dog-eat-dog” mentality, Agyeman observed, but co-ops tap into an opposing, equally powerful human inclination to share.
In 2020, Michelle Wu made food justice a central plank in her mayoral campaign. Among her commitments, she pledged to support small-scale, independent food retail. Today, the Mayor’s Office of Food Justice and Office of Economic Opportunity and Inclusion are among the Dorchester Food Co-op’s long list of local funders.
“As an early member, I am thrilled for the opening of the DFC,” said Aliza Wasserman, director of the Office of Food Justice. “I am grateful for the more-than-decade long vision and work by the staff and members to create a store that shifts our local food system and embodies food justice by building community wealth for communities of color and DFC workers. I look forward to shopping at DFC and encourage residents throughout the City to do so as well.”
Wasserman is the co-op’s 186th member; Boston’s chief of environment, energy and open space, Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, is its 41st. Wu and former Mayor Marty Walsh are also members, according to The Boston Globe.
On a sunny day in late August, I took the Red Line to Fields Corner and walked about 15 minutes to the Dorchester Food Co-op’s front door on Bowdoin Street. Colorful window murals and a home-grown banana tree greeted me from the sidewalk. The co-op wasn’t open yet, but Santos, the general manager, wanted to show me around the store.
Before we got inside, he waved me over to a vertical vegetable garden by the entrance that he’d jerry-rigged out of an old piece of lab equipment donated by Simmons College.
“I believe it was once used for genetic testing on fish,” Santos grinned. Now, “this is going to be left on the street for people to walk by and grab a tomato from, grab an eggplant, and it’s going to begin the conversation.”
Santos may be a master upcycler — he’s growing hydroponic lettuce out of another converted piece of lab equipment — but the store doesn’t look like an art-and-crafts project. He’s carefully considered every element of the space, down to the orientation of the aisles relative to the front entrance: They’re positioned diagonally, instead of running parallel to the walls, to put more products in shoppers’ sightlines. Santos hopes they’re enticed to wend their way through to the very back corner, where he’s placed “most of my really cool stuff” — a cheese case, a selection of gourmet snacks, a display of fancy chocolates.
The refrigerated cases at the co-op are cooled by heat-absorbing carbon dioxide, Santos explained: an environmentally-friendly alternative to the ozone-depleting gasses that cool your typical fridge. It’s an expensive system, but worth the splurge for members and workers who value sustainability.
Some of the cost of that refrigeration system — and other expensive products, like ethically-produced meat that’s free of antibiotics — will be reflected in the co-op’s pricing and borne by customers. But wherever possible, Santos is prioritizing affordability.
He spent the summer bargain hunting: saving thousands on used ventilation hoods for the kitchen, snagging a $15 butcher block at a swap meet, and recovering unwanted tables and equipment from Simmons.
Behind the co-op’s checkout counter is the “refillery” — a wall of liquid bulk dispensers stocked with everything from olive oil and balsamic vinegar to shampoo, laundry detergent, and dish soap. Buying in bulk keeps costs low, and “our philosophy,” Santos explained, “is to pass that savings on to the customer.”
There’s no high-fructose corn syrup in the Dorchester Food Co-op. Instead, products are locally and ethically sourced with an emphasis on nutritional value and cultural relevance. Anticipating his customers’ preferences, he’s stocked the store with everything from local produce to Fabuloso cleaner to imported Puerto Rican pan de agua.
Anyone over 18 can become a member-owner at the co-op. A lifetime membership costs $100, paid all at once or in installments. Community members who want to be involved but can’t afford to pay can tap into the co-op’s Solidarity Fund to cover some or all of the membership cost, no questions asked.
Members own a share of the co-op and get to vote for its Board of Directors at annual meetings. They also get a 5% discount at the grocery store once a month. Members who qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits get a 10% discount on every purchase.
Every employee at the co-op will also be an owner. Santos hired a staff of about 35 this summer, almost all of them from the neighborhood. Between them, they speak English, Spanish, Portuguese, French Creole, Cape Verdean Creole, and Somali. As he continues hiring, Santos is determined to build a staff that reflects Dorchester’s racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity.
Twenty-two-year-old Keilin Wright, the DFC’s marketing specialist, has lived in Dorchester all their life. The co-op “feels like home, in a sense,” they said. “I’m so happy about what it’s going to bring to the community.”
(Wright also makes jewelry — some of which will soon be on sale in the co-op’s café alongside other local artists and artisans’ creations.)
In addition to hiring from the community, the co-op has made a point of collaborating with other small businesses and organizations in Dorchester.
Over the summer, Kitchen Manager Zakiya Alake split her time between the co-op and the Family Nurturing Center across the street, where she offers free food and behavioral health programming for children and families.
The co-op has partnerships with the Family Nurturing Center, the Bowdoin St. Health Center down the street, and many more local organizations. They share resources and plan to do joint community programming. “It’s a nice synergy going on,” Alake said.
She’s been heartened by the community’s response to the co-op so far.
“Yesterday, I happened to be here when a woman just walked in and said, ‘I want to be part of this!’” But, “as enthusiastic as she was about being a member, $100 dollars was a deal-breaker,” so Alake was happy to be able to set her up with a free, subsidized membership.
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