West Philly's Mariposa Food Co-op Focuses on Outreach Along Baltimore Ave.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Philadelphia Weekly
by Ryan Briggs

Strolling down Baltimore Avenue, the tiny Mariposa Food Co-op might be easy to miss were it not for the cluster of activity around its small purple and cyan storefront. Shoppers and delivery workers elbow for space in the store’s single entrance. Its two aisles are jammed with an array of fresh produce, grains and crates of food not yet stocked.

The cramped conditions are an unfortunate symptom of success. What started out as a scattered collection of buying clubs in the late 1960s blossomed into a cooperatively owned marketplace at 4726 Baltimore Ave., with more than 1,000 members who purchase a stake in the business and work hours in the store. In return, they receive access to the co-op’s stock of organic, locally produced, or sometimes hard-to-find food items as well as cheaper bulk goods than they could find as an individual.

Nearly 30 years later, 500 square feet of retail space was at capacity. For a time, new applications for membership were suspended. “About five years ago we really started feeling the growing pains of our current space, and realizing we … seriously needed to start looking for a new location or a second location,” says Bull Gervasi, a member and project manager for the co-op’s expansion.

Dreams of expansion went from fantasy to necessity. But more than simply accommodating more supplies for an expanded roster of stakeholders, there was an even larger, albeit less tangible need.

To its members, the co-op is a culmination of alternative thought in Spruce Hill and Cedar Park, historical bastions in West Philadelphia for radicals of all stripes. It is a means to buy organically grown food from fair-trade suppliers, and it serves as a community meeting place. It is a business owned by neighbors, not a faceless company.

But some outside the co-op saw things differently. They thought it was a secluded club that catered primarily to the tastes and incomes of the wealthy, or white residents, or just simply hippies, depending on the perspective. Contrary to the co-op’s mission, it was inaccessible to most of the neighborhood.

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