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GREAT BARRINGTON — Where do you go when you need baby wipes but also a wedge of Berkshire bleu cheese and sustainably sourced little necks from the Cape?

If you're from Southern Berkshire, you already know: It's Berkshire Food Co-op, of course.

But, if you haven't ventured before to the 34 Bridge St. cooperative store, it's time you did, says Devorah Sawyer, marketing manager for the Co-op.

Some people hear "Co-op," and they think, "it's only produce, only local, limited in selection and to bulk quantities."

Not so, says Sawyer. "We carry anything from diapers and pet food to frozen stuff and a complete section of meat and seafood. We have anything you can think of in a grocery store," says Sawyer.

The Co-op can be shopped by anyone, owner or visitor alike, Sawyer notes, and should be a regular destination for Berkshirites, no matter their need — whether it's incidentals on your drive home or planning ahead for haute cuisine for guests you haven't seen in a while.

Sawyer notes that the Co-op should also be the go-to location for shoppers with food allergies and particular food needs.

"Anyone with a special diet or who needs a specific item, you should think about the Co-op first," says Sawyer. "We really have anything you might need, no matter your restrictions."

Helping the local economy through grocery shopping

The store is owned and governed by its membership and is mission-driven to build a healthy and more equitable Berkshires. Many of the goods sourced by the Co-op come from sustainable businesses and farms within 100 miles of the store; that means about $2 million infused annually into the local economy.

More important, however, is that the entire Co-op is built around being "the best source for clean, whole and local foods in the Berkshires," says Sawyer.

And, as families' food awareness grows, and questions arise about where their food is from and what goes in it, the Berkshire Food Co-op is able to help with information and education, and is able to describe exactly where their food is sourced and how it's cared for.

"We know what we're putting on our shelves," she says, "because a lot of these farmers are our friends, our community."

The Berkshire Food Co-op constantly conducts product research, with a trial team made up of a large swath of the staff, which discusses and debates the pros and cons of items that would best serve its Owners.

The store also accepts shopper recommendations, easily submitted through its website, berkshire.coop, on its "Product Standards" page.

Part of the alternative food supply chain

The Berkshire Food Co-op is part of a "cooperative of Co-ops," which purchases its goods from an alternative food supply chain to traditional, privately or corporately owned businesses.

"We're all kind of on the same team. That's the way buying power is transferred to the customer; the businesses get muscle together," says Sawyer.

This is one of the prime reasons why the Great Barrington Co-op didn't face the same caustic shopping environment as many big markets at the outset of the coronavirus in the Northeast, and was relatively unaffected by runs on staple items.

"We've seen an uptick of owner investment since the pandemic. They're investing in the local community right now, when it's more important now than ever. They're really trying to do something that feels right, and I think the Co-op provides that," says Sawyer.

Today, the democratically governed grocery store is owned by more than 4,300 Owners near and far, and the great news is that anyone and everyone can become an Owner. Prior to the pandemic, about 3,900 people were owner-members.

The total cost of Ownership and equity share is $150. It's up to new members if they want to pay in full or opt into a payment plan. For a $30 payment (including a one-time $10 fee), you can pay $20 a year until your equity is paid in full. And, if you want to opt out, your equity share is 100 percent refundable.

Healthy, sustainable foods since 1981

In 1981, Berkshire Food Co-op began with local families forming a buying group to provide the community with an egalitarian market that offered whole, healthy food and sustainable products delivered at fair prices through joint Ownership and responsible business practices.

Above and beyond the feel-good aspects, being an Owner today gives you a bevy of benefits, including its Buying Club, which gives deals just above cost. Think of it as a perk for bulk shoppers who want safer and healthier food, says Sawyer.

Other benefits include quarterly Owner Appreciation Days, which boast an extra 15 percent off purchases; patronage dividends proportional to the amount you spent during profitable years; a vote in board elections; and a chance to run for the Co-op's Board of Directors.

There's also prepaid owner tabs, an alternative to credit and debit cards, and Owners can attend the Co-op's annual meeting, a chance to schmooze with the board and learn about the health and future plans for the Co-op.

Curbside pickup will continue

COVID-19 likely will change the format of the annual meeting, just as it has changed most aspects of modern-day life, and food shopping is no exception.

Back in March when the outbreak first hit the region, the Co-op quickly recognized the need for more accessible grocery shopping for high-risk individuals, and it developed a curbside pickup program on weekdays. Via an order form on the website, customers can place an order, and a team of Co-op employee shoppers gather the items, which are available late the same day for pickup.

Sawyer says this free service will remain as long as there's a pandemic, and probably beyond that.

The Co-op's shopping team processed 50-plus orders a day in the initial phases of the pandemic. To date, the Co-op has conveyed some 4,000 curbside orders since beginning the service.

Morale has been up during the pandemic, buoyed by staff camaraderie, knowing that their labors are truly essential.

"We've kept a generally positive attitude toward this thing, as it's given us a stronger sense of responsibility over the work we're doing, providing healthy food to the community. It feels a bit backwards, as if everyone should be stressed out. The work we do here is important, and it helps keep everybody's heads on," says Sawyer.

A few changes

Since March, store hours have been reduced slightly to 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. everyday, to allow for more restocking and order preparation.

In addition to all shoppers and staff wearing masks in the store at all times, the self-serve is now full-service and seating areas are open but limited to allow for social distancing, while the hot bar has morphed into a case full of grab and go meals. There is also limited seating on the Co-op's patio.

This time of year is the best time to check out the Co-op, as it's when many local farms are hauling in their late summer and early fall crops.

The store is easily accessible from all points on the compass, right off Main Street, with current customers and Owners hailing from across the region, including nearby Connecticut and New York. Don't forget: Senior discount days are held every week on Wednesdays and Sundays!

Visit the Co-op at 34 Bridge St., email community@berkshire.coop or call 413-528-9697 for more information on how your grocery shopping can be an important link in your community's health and growth.


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