Oftentimes, when we pick up the newspaper or watch the local news, we hear stories about Dorchester and its surrounding communities. All too often we are greeted with stories of crime and violence. Rarely do we hear positive things about Dorchester or any instances of its upward mobility.
Dorchester has evolved from a demographic composed primarily of Jewish Americans to a multi-cultural, multi- ethnic community. Though crime and poverty are in fact a reality for a lot of residents in Dorchester and its surrounding communities, folks are talking and are coming together to stake a claim in its future. Health centers such as The Codman Square Community Health Center, Dorchester Court in cooperation with various outreach programs, as well as other organizations are uniting to improve the lives of Dorchester residents. One such organization is The Dorchester Community Food Co-op.
Spare Change News recently had the pleasure to meet up with Jenny Silverman, spokesperson for the Dorchester Community Food Co-op, a member- owned, member-controlled business that operates for the benefit of the community. We agreed to meet at the Flat Black Coffee Shop located at the Ashmont T station where we talked at length about the Co-op, how it was founded and its ultimate objective. Miss Silverman’s appearance can only be described as a small, petite, attractive woman. But after one minute of talking with her, it was obvious she had the heart of a lioness. I personally was moved by her knowledge and deep sense of commitment both to the organization as well as to the community as a whole.
SCN: Tell me a little about your organization?
Jenny Silverman: The Dorchester Community Food Co Op is about one and a half years old. It’s an initiative to build a new food co-op in Dorchester. It started in the late winter, early spring of 2011 with folks starting to talk to each other about the fact that we don’t have as many healthy food options in Dorchester as we would like. For different people that means different things. A lot of us feel that there aren’t enough supermarkets in the community, number one, and the ones that we have seem to be a little sub-standard compared to what you might find in other communities where you have a wider choice of options. Like Central Square in Cambridge has a Shaw’s, a Trader Joes, and it has two Whole Foods, as well as a Food Co-op. It has an Asian market and a number of others, so basically it has a lot. That’s just not the case here and often-times, you go to the stores here and you think, “Do they ship all their really bad produce to Dorchester?”. In addition to that, people who are interested in buying whole grains, organic produce, or other natural green cleaning products… all of that, you know there are little sections in the Stop and Shop, but there are no stores here that focus on those kinds of products.
SCN: And those products can be very expensive.
Jenny Silverman: Yeah, but that’s an issue that everyone’s going to have to face. But the other idea about having a food co-op is that a community owned food co-op is a community owned asset. And so it creates economic opportunity in our community. Because it is owned by the members, it means that we get to make the decisions about whether it will stay or leave and that the profits stay in our community so they then get redistributed within the community.
SCN: I wanted to ask about how the co-op is staffed. I know that people buy into the co-op and can work within the co- op, like say, some of the stores you have or hope to have. Do you welcome volunteers?
Jenny Silverman: Right now we’re an all-volunteer organization. We actually don’t have money to hire staff, but we are working on getting some staff positions funded for this development period. Obviously, once we build the store we will have full-time staff, we’re hoping to have about 40 staff positions, but they may not all be full-time, you know, the store is open many hours so we will have rotating staff. But when we’re selling products in the store we will have a revenue stream to hire staff. Right now in the organizing faze, we need to come up with other ways of funding some staff positions; maybe through grants. So right now it’s all volunteers, everybody is doing it for free.
SCN: The Co-op, recently, received the 2012 Sustainable Food Leadership grant.
Jenny Silverman: Right, that was a lovely honor, “but not a grant”. No money attached to that one (laughs). Yeah, that was recognition by the Mayor’s Office for our work. Particularly the work at bringing a winters farmers market to Dorchester.
SCN: Right, but I did read something about a $10,000.00 grant.
Jenny Silverman: We did get a grant, yes for $10,000.00, we just got that. That’s from something called the Food Co-op Initiative, which is a national organization. There are many, many new Food Co-ops’ being developed all over the country.This is a real time of Co-op development. I think for all the reasons as I said Dorchester wants one. So there is a national organization that has both federal money as well as private foundation money, and they awarded ten grants across the country and we were one of them and we are very excited to have been included in that top list.
SCN: So is that primarily how the organization is funded, through grants and donations?
Jenny Silverman: Through grants and donations. Right now we are selling memberships but we’re trying to not spend that money yet, those equity shares. We have raised a little bit of money for the various projects we have done, but we’re trying to raise more money to create some staff nutritionists.
SCN: One issue that is of concern to me is the issue of obesity, especially childhood obesity and I was wondering how, if you are in any way, combatting the issue of obesity, especially in the more urban neighborhoods.
Jenny Silverman: Yeah, it’s a very big problem in our community. Dorchester has some of the highest obesity rates in the city. So we think that is a combination of different factors. The question is do people have access to healthy foods as opposed to what I call highly processed foods like chips, and soda that rarely have anything real? As opposed to being able to buy fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains like rice and things like that. So number one, do people have stores nearby where they can access those foods? The second question, is it affordable? And the third question is, do people know what to do with it and also do people have time in their lives to cook? I think there has been a disconnect between the ability to cook and work with natural foods as opposed to opening up a box and putting it in the microwave. You know, back in the old days when I was in junior high school, we took home economics which we laughed about at the time, but there was still some degree of teaching people some life skills like cooking. Anyway, so this conversation is happening nationally. Michelle Obama is doing a great job, but we want Dorchester and its surrounding communities not to be left out of that conversation.
SCN: So if a person wanted to volunteer or give a donation to the organization, how would they go about doing that?
Jenny Silverman: We have an email which is firstname.lastname@example.org and we are working on a membership drive right now, trying to get people to join. We’re asking people in other neighborhoods to invite us to their house party, let’s say, invite a few neighbors over where we can talk about the co-op. We also need help with the winter farmers market with volunteers coming and working at the market. So there are a variety of different things, mostly centered around outreach.
We ended the conversation talking about “Fresh Fridays”, a series of Friday night events in August and September where there was live entertainment, food and beverages, as well as activities for children. For information on further events or to find out more about Dorchester Community Food Co-op, I encourage readers to check out their website at dotcommcoop.wordpress.com.