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    Around food, a community

    By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 12, 2002

    TAMPA -- When Mickey Abrahams moved from Brattleboro, Vt., to Tampa last year, she was shocked when she stepped into the local natural food stores.

    The items she had bought at her small-town co-op were much more expensive here; rice was 50 cents more a pound. Some things, like the locally baked breads she loved, weren't available at all. And something even more important was missing.

    "The sense of community," said Abrahams, who is 42 and works in an art gallery. "I miss that. The co-op was like the town meeting place."

    Dozens share Abrahams' view, if the turnout at a meeting in the John Germany Public Library auditorium downtown Tuesday was any indication. More than 60 people packed the meeting, which was called to organize a storefront co-op in Tampa.

    For those whose grocery store knowledge stops at the doors of Publix, co-ops buy goods in bulk to save money and decrease costs. Some co-ops offer discounts for people who buy shares or memberships; others allow members to work for discounts. Food co-ops often specialize in natural foods, local produce, baked goods and organic foods that are grown without pesticides.

    At Tuesday's meeting, people stood to cheerfully introduce themselves. One man was a computer programmer and 10-year vegetarian. Another called himself a "self-employed rabble-rouser" and sported a star tattoo on his knee. A civil rights lawyer in a tan business suit sat in the front row next to a man in dreadlocks and a Jerry Garcia T-shirt. An electrical engineer told the crowd he buys $100 a week in organic food and hopes to save money at a co-op. A Ruskin woman said she used to run an organic cafe in San Francisco.

    No one was more amazed at the turnout than organizer Jeff Bert, who works at Metropolitan Ministries as a volunteer coordinator.

    "I think this means that people are ready to experience community again. People are feeling disconnected with one another," said Bert. "And people are very interested in organic foods."

    Like most of the people in the audience, Bert had shopped at co-ops in other cities or states. "I've always liked the idea of co-ops," he said.

    The Tampa Bay area has a handful of natural food stores, but many at the meeting said they liked the idea of "owning a piece" of a co-op. Tampa has a few small food-buying groups, but food is usually delivered to one member's home, and the others pick it up on certain days of the month.

    What Bert and others hope to do is open a store somewhere in Tampa.

    Keeping with the democratic tradition of co-ops, the group will decide how, where and when the store is run. That process started Tuesday night with a typed-out agenda, assigned committees and members given the task of creating a Web site.

    But the meeting felt less like, well, a meeting, and more like a group of very laid-back people having fun.

    People laughed at each other's jokes. Cynthia Ihrig of Tampa breast-fed her 4-month-old as she told the group about her food-buying habits and penchant for cooking organic food for her dogs and baby parrot.

    The group decided to meet next month, on July 11 at 7 p.m. People are urged to consider a name for the co-op.

    Said Barry Shalinsky, a 48-year-old disability rights worker from Tampa: "This is more about nourishment than it is about food."

    Want to know more?

    For more information, contact Jeff Bert at (813) 598-5806.

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