Bethlehem Food Co-op Hits Major Milestone

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The Bethlehem Food Co-op has hit its magic number. 300.

That's the number of member households the nonprofit group identified it would need to sign up before starting to hunt for a location.

It made a major push to in March to hit the goal by the 30th and by April 1 was at 314 member households.

"Three-hundred member households means we can form our real estate committee," said Colleen Marsh, chairwoman of the co-op's board. "But it doesn't mean we'll open tomorrow and it doesn't mean we don't need new members. It means we have enough equity that a bank would talk to us."

Food co-ops are grocery stores owned by members who get to shop at a discounted rate and take classes. Members pay a one-time fee of $300, and the co-op offers an installment plan.

Anyone will be able to shop at the Bethlehem Food Co-op but they won't share in the perks of membership.

It takes a lot of hard work and time for a group of volunteers to open a cooperative grocery store. The average startup food co-op takes five to seven years form incorporation to opening, Marsh said.

Plant a Row Lehigh Valley is looking for home gardeners to volunteer to dedicate a portion of their produce to food pantries.

The Bethlehem Food Co-op incorporated in 2013, so they're on schedule.

Organizers hope to open the co-op in one of Bethlehem's downtowns by 2017-18, ending the neighborhood's food desert status. South Bethlehem had been a top option before the opening of the C-Town grocery store on East Third Street but it isn't ruled out.

"The north side, much of it is still defined as a food desert, especially with the Bottom Dollar closing," Marsh said.

The ideal location will be downtown, meet the square footage needs identified in a feasibility study and offer easy access to public transit. The committee will evaluate potential sites until one is found, Marsh said.

Once they find the perfect location, the co-op will launch a member loan campaign as part of its capital campaign and may also take out a bank loan.

"We've heard approximately one in five households are not just willing but also able to make some sort of a small loan," Marsh said.

While there's no store yet, the years of planning have been fruitful.

"The level of community that has built around the food co-op already is absolutely mind blowing," said Marsh, who lives in Bethlehem. "People are making business connections, people are making lifelong friends out of it."

The co-op launched its education programs in January and has events planned throughout the spring.

Last year, the co-op hired Carol Ritter and Laurel Blair Mikovits, of CarolTalks, to increase membership as it works to open a member-owned grocery store in Bethlehem.

Author – Sara K. Satullo  for 

The Bethlehem Food Co-op will soon begin hunting for a new location for its member-owned grocery store. ( file photo)


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