Cooperatives as we know them today got their start in Rochdale, England in the 1840’s. A group of striking flannel weavers got together and formed their own store to buy food at affordable prices. What made this cooperative different from previous ones was that the Rochdale Pioneers developed basic rules and principles by which to run their co-op.
Modern co-ops still look to these principles as a framework for their businesses. Today there are many types of cooperatives: agricultural, utility, insurance, and consumer – like the East End Food Co-op. Offering access to more affordable food was the main motivation for the original endeavor that evolved over the years into our East End Food Co-op. In 1972, Point Breeze residents David and Rodah Zarembka were impressed by their experience with “buying clubs” in Philadelphia and decided to start one in their basement to address poverty in Pittsburgh’s East End. Originally organized through the East End Cooperative Ministry, the club’s ultimate goal was to become an independent co-op owned by community members. Membership cost only $1 and food was distributed at open air markets, in church basements, at homes for the elderly, and even in a private garage.
After an initial $20,000 startup grant (provided by U.S. Catholic Conference Campaign for Human Development) ran out, the club established member work-shifts to keep the business running. At this point they had three staff members, funded by AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), who were required to attend board and committee meetings. There were 600 member households, each required to work two hours a month. EEFC opened its first retail storefront to shopping members in 1978, at 5474 Penn Avenue (now the Pittsburgh Glass Center).
EEFC officially incorporated on June 12, 1980 and was temporarily housing the Consumer Cooperative of Pittsburgh (CCP) in their warehouse. The CCP operated as a bulk and produce distributor to 20 local food clubs, plus 150 co-ops and local businesses in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, until it folded in 1981. When our sister co-op on Semple Street closed its doors in 1985 after twelve years of providing healthy and organic foods, many of their members and staff joined our membership. It was decided then that the EEFC would offer affordable and healthy food to not just members, but also the general public. More people shopping meant lower prices for all.
East End Food Co-op is the last natural foods co-op left in Pittsburgh from those original, back-to-nature stores. We have grown and changed over time, but our reason for being here remains the same–to bring good food to people at fair prices, and to spread word about the benefits of cooperative ownership. Since your Co-op relocated to its present location our membership has continued to grow to over 11,000 households. Staff has increased to over 90 employees. As we look to the future, we see continued growth on the horizon, which is why someday our Co-op is sure to expand. Whether that means a second location, moving to a larger location in the East End, or offering new services remains to be seen, but no matter what shape it takes we believe we are all truly “stronger together.”