Column: Fifty-year-old London Meals Co-op might be the way in which ahead post-pandemic

Column: Fifty-year-old London Food Co-op could be the way forward post-pandemic

It’s not often that you find a place steeped in local tradition that could also be a possible blueprint for food stability in the future.

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Located just off Adelaide Street in the Old East, the London Food Co-op can share some of the lessons learned in half a century in the not-for-profit grocery business about sustainability and just being neighborly.

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On a Tuesday afternoon, it was quiet in the cheerful shop selling organic, locally sourced food. A United Nations flag and the flag of the cooperative hang above the entrance. The shelves, grocery section, and freezers with meat and vegan offerings were neatly organized, and the smell of freshly ground coffee beans lingered in the air.

And they have toilet paper.

This is not your normal big box grocery store. There are no gimmicks, frills or whistles, but no other London grocer can boast an original artwork by the late, renowned London artist Greg Curnoe, expressing his original philosophy.

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Little did a small group of Londoners know back in 1970 that their hippie idea would have a very modern flair in 2020. In Curnoe’s block letters on his carefully crafted sign, it states that the store focuses on food that is “organically grown with no additives & contaminants wherever possible.”

The store was on Hamilton Road for two decades and has been on Princess Avenue for 30 years. There are solar panels on the roof and sunny staff working inside.

Co-manager Loretta McHenry, who has been there for 31 years, tuned out the Joni Mitchell song to provide a guided tour while Barbara Deakin, the other co-manager, was busy making sure everything was fine.

“The vibe in the co-op is a very different vibe than you would be in a market or a grocery store,” McHenry said, and a lot of it is based on trust.

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Members, and there are hundreds of them, pay $40 a year to get a stake in the place and the privileges that come with it. When they shop, they are subject to the honor system. They weigh their own produce and other groceries. When you check out, they call out the prices at the register.

You are also encouraged to volunteer for housekeeping, product pricing and checkout.

The mood is brighter, the bond between people closer.

McHenry said they don’t charge much to “shop in a great place, meet great people, choose great food and keep a lot of local farmers happy.”

Some of these farmers, like the members, have been part of the cooperative for generations.

“You are part of something that is a special place. “You’re part of something far bigger than a grocery store,” McHenry said.

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COVID-19 has thwarted every birthday celebration.

There are new protocols. The hand washing station must be used by all shoppers. There is a clock on the wall that measures the 20-second scrubbing time. If you use your mobile phone, you will be prompted to wash again.

Only six buyers are allowed to enter the store at a time and unfortunately children are not allowed in for the time being. That’s huge, because “there’s always been a lot of hugs in the co-op, a lot of kids, and a lot of kids holding,” McHenry said. Part of the joy, she said, is watching generations grow.

Reusable bags are dropped off at the door and everyone must use a shopping cart. Blue tape on the floor marks proper social distancing. Staff fills and delivers orders for senior members.

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No other store encourages “distance dancing” in the aisles. “We’re trying to have fun, and part of the fun is dancing from afar,” McHenry said as they turned up the music and danced between the shelves.

One member made an “art installation” at the checkout, a plexiglass pane with two small toy coronaviruses hanging from the underside.

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been told we need to work together, care for each other and support local businesses. The cooperative could become a model that we will remember once we think about what we need to support each other in the future.

“We’re not trying to be a giant in the food world,” McHenry said.

Simply a reliable neighbor for half a century.


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