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Baltimore co-op taking food back to its roots

L and R- Cashier Emilee Wooten assists customer Jennie MacPherson

It’s not often that progress is frowned upon. Technological developments that make things faster and cheaper are great — for most things — but not necessarily food.

At the Baltimore Food Co-Op in Remington, which hosts its Grand Opening celebration Thursday, workers hope to take the food industry back to its roots.

Store Manager Cheryl Wade, and others leading similar efforts across the city, want to connect residents with more locally sourced, sustainable food options. Her goal is to encourage people to buy local and shop local, an effort many people agreed will not only bring tastier food to customers, but will boost local economies and improve public health.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake will officially open the co-op at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, but festivities — including music, giveaways and food samples — will last all day for an event that many people said represents a movement away from existing notions of farming practices and food consumption.

Wade, who has worked in the industry for more than 35 years, said the corporate supermarket model is ineffective at serving the needs of individual communities.

“Our city always had local stores. To keep chasing the big corporate chains — I don’t think that’s the answer,” she said. “I think the answer is to go back to the way it used to be, where you know your farmer, know where it came from.”

That’s exactly what the co-op hopes to do, she said, adding that she’s seen “tremendous” growth in the popularity of farmers’ markets’ and similar projects, such as urban greenhouse farming, over the last five years.

But the co-op’s benefits to the community hardly stop at the pleasures of a juicy nectarine. It provides jobs for residents and creates a cycle of economic activity in the area, Baltimore Food Co-Op board member John Segal said.

“We’re reinvesting in the community,” Segal said, adding they’ve hired five workers so far and soon expect to bring on another dozen. “And we’re bringing local, good, healthy foods to the community, We’re not putting agribusiness on our shelves.”

Employee Tom Starr, 20, said Tuesday he’s fully on board with its mission. Turning a profit isn’t their primary goal, he said — they just want to put fresh food on their neighbors’ tables.

“I think it is better in a lot of ways than your standard grocery store because it brings the community together,” he said. “It’s less of a money-making atmosphere and more of an everyone-helping-each other emphasis.”

Added Segal, who is Starr’s stepfather: “We’re not generating profits for stockholders or for anyone other than who works in the store. There are no perks, none of that stuff exists. The savings are basically turned back to the members.”

The initiative shows emerging interest from consumers looking for fresher choices and health officials hoping to encourage those practices city-wide. Many Baltimore residents, particularly those living in low-income areas without accessible grocery stores, face a barrage of health issues brought upon or worsened by their unhealthful diets.

According to a report by the Baltimore City Food Policy Task Force, more than two-thirds of the city’s adults are overweight or obese, 14 percent of low-income families don’t have access to adequate healthy food choices, and those residents have the highest rates of heart disease, diabetes and strokes.

One way the city hopes to tackle its health crisis is by changing what’s for dinner. The city is rewriting its zoning code to require small stores in each community to carry basic grocery items such as bread and milk in addition to unhealthy packaged goods.

Greater Remington Improvement Association President Judith Kunst said the group fully supports the new co-op and anticipates it will generate beneficial economic activity.

“People are very excited,” she said. “Everything is very expensive right now — we’re in a recession — it’s just a wonderful way to get fresh food and work with your community members and farmers. And we have so many people who don’t have cars, it’s a win-win for everybody.”

The co-op is located inside the same warehouse-style building that housed Wade’s Mill Valley General Store for nine years.

Jennie MacPherson, 28, who lives about four blocks away in Hampden, said she expects the co-op will be a welcome addition to the neighborhood. Seeking fresh food has become more popular among people in the area, she said, and other shoppers agreed the demand is definitely there.

“It’s a bit pricier to shop down here, but for the better quality and to support local farmers, I’d much rather pay a little bit more,” MacPherson said.