Quabbin Harvest Co-op Continues Effort to Build Low-Cost, Local Food Oasis

The Recorder, May 30th, by Chris Curtis

The Quabbin Harvest cooperative market experiment continues, with more than a quarter of a million dollars in sales in its first full calendar year downtown.

The co-op opened in its new storefront at 12 North Main St. in October of 2014, after a few years in a tiny space in the nearby Orange Innovation Center.

Board of directors Treasurer Karl Bittenbender said the small downtown grocery store had $260,000 in sales last year and $196,000 of that, 75 percent, went back into the local community to buy products from local farmers, services from local providers and to pay local wages for four part-time employees.

It’s hard to put those figures in context, with the shop just a little over a year-and-a-half in its current location.

The downtown storefront was made possible by the Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, which bought the old bank building to help the co-op in an effort preserve local farmland. The co-op is concerned with selling the food grown on local farmland.

“They realized that the co-op was the other end of the food chain,” Bittenbender said.

Despite the location right off Orange’s main intersection, opposite the Town Hall, Bittenbender said, the co-op has struggled to get the word out that the market exists. Part of that may be the assumption that a small shop’s prices will be higher than the chain supermarkets in nearby Athol.

Quabbin Harvest is a little different from what many might expect when they hear “co-op” in that the emphasis is less on organic than on local and inexpensive.

Bittenbender said customers seem to be less interested in whether the food is organic than where it comes from and how much it costs. The co-op doesn’t enjoy the bulk purchase prices its larger competitors do, but Bittenbender said it has priced a “basics” line of 75 items at or below Market Basket and Hannaford prices, in recognition of the economic realities of the region. Dried kidney beans for $2.49 a pound and red lentils or organic brown rice for $1.99 a pound, for example, were three of the products carrying a red “basics” tag recently.

It’s a delicate balance, with the competing interests of making money to stay in business, paying small farmers the prices they need to also stay in business and offering healthy, affordable food.

“(This) means we make next to nothing on these 75 items, but you can walk to get them and can also do them on the restricted income that the Orange-Athol area is painfully noted for,” Bittenbender said.