February 10, 2005

Ending our love affair with the Co-Op

Since the beginning of the academic year, almost every Friday afternoon, I ritually shop for the upcoming week's groceries. When my pantry's shelves seem more empty than full, I know it is time to hop in the car and stock up. When I was living in Max Palevsky and still relying on the CTA to take me places, I would make the occasional trek to the Co-Op Market in the Hyde Park Shopping Center on 55th Street. I remember being a wide-eyed first-year staring up at the Co-Op's green and purple sign, with its motto "A Love Affair With Wonderful Foods" overhead, and knowing that I had finally left my parents' house to live (and shop for groceries) independently. No matter what time of year it was, one could find me hauling several bags of groceries down 56th Street on my way back to the dorm, wondering how I would fit my newly acquired provisions into the tiny rent-a-fridge in our suite's orange foyer. This was the way I lived, never contemplating the possibility that, somewhere out there, there was a plethora of better gastronomical choices—fresher food for lower prices.

When I brought my car to Chicago in the winter of last year, a whole new world was opened to me. In this vast city, I quickly discovered, there are a host of wonderful grocery establishments boasting wide selections and competitive prices. Now that I had traded in the rent-a-fridge for a normal-sized refrigerator, it was obvious that the time had come to reach out and grab that one little piece of plastic that would change my life: the Jewel-Osco Preferred Card.

I soon began shopping regularly at the Jewel-Osco market on the corner Roosevelt Road and State Street, and it has made all the difference. For one thing, it is open twenty-24 a day, seven days a week. Twice the size of the Co-Op, it boasts a large selection of fresh produce and every sort of fare imaginable. What sweetens the experience is the abundance of deals and specials that make shopping there much more affordable.

While this may sound like an advertisement for Jewel-Osco, it is simply my way of demonstrating that there is more out there in the way of grocery-shopping than the Co-Op with its high prices and low-quality products. Many of my friends shop at Dominick's and give it the same high marks I give Jewel. Those with whom I have spoken tell me that the meat at the Co-Op is often spoiled, but those who shop at Jewel and Dominick's say that their meat, fish, and poultry are always fresh.

My point is that the monopoly the Co-Op holds in Hyde Park is hurting residents by limiting their options. Students are especially vulnerable, as most undergraduates have limited means of transportation and are living on a lower-budget. It is high time that Hyde Parkers allow outside chains to set up shop in our neighborhood in order to provide healthy competition that will better serve the community.

With new development reshaping Hyde Park in recent years (Subways and Quiznos have popped up all over, and we are awaiting the opening of a new CVS pharmacy on 53rd Street), it would be a boon to the quality of life here if a Jewel, Dominick's, or other large-chain grocer were to move in. The Co-Op—a model of the European social-welfare state—only provides the community with high prices and low-quality goods. Competition has brought better living to our community already, and it could help the Co-Op rekindle the spark in its "love affair" that seems to have gone cold. In the months since the opening of the new BP-Amoco station on 52nd Street and Lake Park, the run-down Mobil station on 53rd Street has renovated and reopened with lower prices.

Students have long complained about the Co-Op and its shortcomings. There is even a group on The Facebook called "Hyde Park Residents for Better Grocery Options" with over 65 members (William Rainey Harper and Joseph Regenstein are groupies, I might add). It is no surprise to me that every time I mention my trips to Jewel friends swarm like mosquitoes on a humid day, hoping to bum rides off me for shopping excursions of their own.

It is commendable that the creators of the Co-Op strove to uphold workers rights and involved themselves in community activism, but, since its founding during the Great Depression, the needs of Hyde Parkers have changed. Allowing competition will not only make it easier for residents to make more choices about what they buy, but it will force the Co-Op to reevaluate its practices and help improve services. Nobody wants the Co-Op to disappear entirely, but it is apparent that many in Hyde Park have grown tired of its monopoly and have a desire to see the emergence of a healthy and mutually beneficial competition. It is high time that the neighborhood's movers-and-shakers end their long, sordid affair with the Co-Op and give residents the opportunity to seek a new love with wonderful foods somewhere else.