Paper Or Plastic? The Food Co-op Finally Lets You Charge It

The member-owned-and-operated Park Slope Food Co-op opened in 1973 and the following year began publishing its aptly named newsletter, The Linewaiter’s Gazette. Cashing in on the Co-op’s motto—“good food at low prices for working members through cooperation”—has long meant long waits to learn the total (even SKU numbers didn’t arrive at the Co-op until this century), then enduring a second, equally glacier-paced line to pay. And, except for food stamps and a prehistoric, pre-paid personal-check system, it was cash only, with nearly every customer in for an unintended game of blackjack, anxiously eyeing the total for fear those impulse-buy tamari almonds or fresh galangal would push them over the limit.

So when the Co-op announced it would accept debit cards this past fall, I grabbed my canvas tote bags and came running. For once, inspired spending wouldn’t require schlepping up the block to an ATM, or “un-shopping”—walking back through the aisles returning that can of imported tuna, those cheaper-than-retail-but-still-pricey vitamins, and that where-did-I-even-find-this-algae-based skin cream?

My first time shopping with plastic, I felt like an uptown art collector. I bypassed the tofu and went for a fancy bag of gorgeously swirled $8 Tuscan beans, some rough-hewn, artisanal orecchiette and a bottle of the finest olive oil. I was out the door with my pricey purchases before I even noticed the receipt’s total.

According to general manager Joe Holtz, I’m not alone in my enthusiasm. Over half of shoppers are embracing the new system, and they’re embracing about eight percent more purchases, too. But was I too quick to adore this brave new Brooklyn? Have we bought into convenience but lost something else?

Yes, if you ask Moe Kornbluth, a member since the Co-op’s inception. To him, a shopping-cart traffic jam is “an opportunity to ask someone how they’re going to use some kind of tropical tuber I never heard of.”

I always enjoy chatting with Moe. Then again, there has been more than one instance when, standing in my winter coat with thawing ice cream and the member in front of me detailing the rewards of his one-meal-a-day diet, I’ve lost my cool. Now when I need milk from grassfed cows and the meter’s running, or I’ve got company coming and no olives, you can bet I’ll be swiping the plastic. Charge!

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Zoe Singer is a freelance food writer, co-author of The Flexitarian Table and a blogger for fitpregnancy.com. She grew up in Park Slope, lives in Sunset Park and regularly eats her way down Fifth Avenue to Bay Ridge.