Westerly Food Co-op in Tune with the Times

Memories of a Former Connecticut Food Co-op

For those who’ve had to squeeze around me in food market aisles, it might be surprising to learn that once, in my early 20s, I was a 170-pound weakling.

In 1971 or so, I was driving back East to Cambridge from California and had agreed to give a ride to a woman I’d met in Santa Cruz. I was to pick her up near Sacramento, where she was attending what she called a macrobiotic summer camp. I spent a few days there, waiting for her, and came away intrigued by the virtues of brown rice, tamari, and sesame oil; the edict that vegetables should all be chopped the same way and only while in a smiling mood; that the roots of leeks are good for the kidneys, and that carrots should be brushed, not peeled; and that eating what is grown or bred locally, so long as it is chemical free, is fine, animal flesh included.

So, once back in Cambridge, and dutifully shopping at Erewhon in downtown Boston, I lived pretty much on a diet of brown rice, parsley, oats, sprouts, nuts, salads, soups, fish, un-yeasted onion and/or apple bread (baked by me and best eaten fresh from the oven, otherwise as tasty as plaster) and various other healthy nibbles, indulgences and extracts.

After a fall and winter of this, I went out, one day in the spring, to play tennis, a sport I love and had played since boyhood. I was befuddled by how heavy the racquet was, and how taxing the volleying. I was trimmer, yes, indeed, but had been shorn of my, well, muscle memory.

My fault, for sure, for not taking care of all aspects of well-being, and I began weaning myself from the regimen, but not wholly from the dietary staples. When, a few short years and fruitful travels later, I arrived in Stonington, in 1977, with a job at a newspaper, a young family and a hand-cranked grain mill in tow, it was heartening to learn there was a food cooperative in operation across the border in Westerly.

In 1974, Joe and Karen Light, who were introduced to food co-cops a couple of years earlier at the University of Rhode Island, started what became known as the Westerly Food Co-operative. The first meeting attracted some 10 households, and the initial space was in the basement of Grace Methodist Church on Park Avenue. Food was purchased once a month from the Alternative Food Co-op at URI.

“Eventually, we grew big enough to do our own ordering from the New England Federation of Co-ops in Boston,” remembers Joe Light, who worked for 23 years as a school librarian in South Kingstown and then seven more years in Westerly schools before retiring in 2003. Karen Light still works at the Westerly Library as head of collection management. “We’d rent a truck and pick up our order. We also got cheese, nuts and peanut butter from small firms in Providence. As membership grew, we opened two days a week for a total of eight hours.”

At its peak, the Westerly co-op had a membership of more than 100 households, each paying an initial membership fee of $25. Members lived in Mystic, Stonington, North Stonington, Westerly and Hopkinton. The co-op had something of a nomadic existence, moving from the church to the second floor of an old house in Main Street, then three different storefront locales in Merchants Square, then a complex of garage bays on Cross Street and an old bank building on High Street. “We had a back room that included a drive-up teller window,” Light said.

As with most co-ops, members shared in the storekeeping, breaking down and packaging bulk foods, cleanup and the like.

Typical bulk purchases by the co-op included 40-pound blocks of Vermont cheddar and other cheeses; 30-pound tins of peanut butter; five-gallon tins of honey (no easy chore to repackage) and 5-gallon tins of maple syrup; 50-pound bags of organic rice, flour and rolled oats, as well as smaller quantities of raisins and other dried fruits; 50-pound bags of potatoes from West Kingston, and bulk beans. Cooking oil and tofu also were among the regular orders.

In the mid-1990s, said Light, the decision was made to close the store. In its place, the co-op, by now with a smaller membership, worked with monthly deliveries to members’ houses, first in Ashaway and then Westerly. The co-op changed to a pre-order format, which reduced choice but maintained the ability to order in volume and provide healthy food at reasonable prices.

30-year run

However, rising gas prices, passed along as a surcharge by the group’s main supplier, United Natural Foods, and self-imposed surcharges to cover the cost of food, made the co-op’s future a struggle. “Also, many of the food items we were purchasing were now available in conventional supermarkets,” said Light. “We ceased operations around 2004.”

Among the more active members was Diana Urban, who lives in North Stonington and handled the co-op’s food ordering in the early years. Today she is in her eighth term as state representative in the Connecticut General Assembly, representing North Stonington and Stonington.

“It was a wonderful way to be able to afford really good food for your family,” she recalled in a recent email. “My son Lex was a baby when I joined and I was so appreciative of the ability to get organic foods for him.”

I forget when we retired our grain mill. Like the Westerly Food Co-operative, it probably had too short a shelf life. But only in function, not in spirit.

Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington., CT. He was a longtime reporter and columnist for The Day of New London. [email protected]

Pawcatuck, CT • The Westerly Sun • February 4, 2017

Photo: The writer's copy of a 1969 edition of a macrobiotic cookbook published by The Order of the Universe Publications in Boston. | Harold Hanka, The Westerly Sun

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