“Don’t trust anyone over 30” was a flippant slogan of the youth movement of the 60s and 70s.
Tempus fugit: The most prominent branch of this era in Ithaca, the GreenStar Cooperative Food Market, turns 50 this year, as reported in an Ithaca Times cover story last week by Bill Chaisson.
Well, “Forget them if they can’t stand a joke,” as Jerry Garcia (roughly) once said of his band’s status in and beyond the counterculture, since its inception. creation and aging. GreenStar lives and continues to grow.
As Chaisson has described it, GreenStar’s growth over the years has come about quickly.
It started out as a buying club, mainly for products bought weekly at a wholesale market in Syracuse and distributed to neighborhood centers across Ithaca. Next is a small store in a cinder block building on a dead end street on Route 13. A more central location came a few years later on Cayuga Street in Fall Creek. This building burned down and a site in the West End, once a small supermarket, was rented. Finally, in 2020, a brand new facility was built on Cascadilla Street, about four times the size of the previous one.
There are small satellite stores in the Dewitt Building and in Collegetown. From a business that for years had no physical location and was run by volunteer members, GreenStar has grown to one of Tompkins County’s 30 largest employers.
With growth comes change. GreenStar has been both proactive and responsive in addressing evolving food concerns which encompass policy as well as nutrition. Whether it’s for better or for worse sometimes depends on personal opinions.
Of undisputed positivity is the presence of organic foods in stores everywhere now. For years, organic food has been considered the preserve of fanatics and weirdos. Then, in 1989, an article on “60 Minutes” reported that alar, a chemical widely used on apples, increased the risk of childhood cancer hundreds of times. This has triggered a so-called “organic panic” in the food industry.
GreenStar, like many food co-ops, was well positioned to address this issue, with a significant portion of its produce grown organically. At the time, it was around 50 percent. Today, it’s closer to 90 percent, and every department in the store is well represented by organic options.
Another positive development in food production where GreenStar has been a leader, like many co-ops, small retailers and restaurants, is the emphasis on local foods.
A longtime worker at GreenStar and similar companies remembers the days of organic panic and feelings of dissatisfaction with the increased demand for organic products.
“I was making products with another staff member and I said, you know, it’s good that we sell all these Cal-Organic carrots, but they’re from California. How much fossil fuel does it take to ship these things across the country? I said, I hope one day we will sell organic carrots thirty miles away. That era arrived at GreenStar some time ago, with now over a thousand locally sourced items sold in the store.
A contested development in the store was the arrival of beer, cider and especially meats. During its first 30 years, none of them were sold. Along with changing tastes, there was a referendum and a store-wide vote among the thousands of GreenStar members to sell these products. A compromise stipulated that whatever was offered had to be produced locally or organically: a condition which, as noted in the Ithaca Times article last week, has since weakened somewhat in concern and practice, but is still widely respected.
Another area of conflict is the store’s range of take-out (“take-out”) foods. The offers are exemplary, both in taste and nutritional quality, but the plastic packaging is a detrimental element that some members say should prohibit their sale.
As prepared foods are among the best-selling items in the store, they seem well positioned to stay, although naysayers say that if we tolerate GreenStar selling products that are harmful to the environment because of their popularity and profitability, how can we condemn someone else (the fossil fuel industry, for example) for doing the same?
In addition to denouncing the abundance of plastics, environmentalists proposed a few years ago that GreenStar reduce paper waste by charging for paper bags at the checkout. At the time a new idea, it was rejected by management as punitive and uncompetitive. When members gathered enough signatures for a referendum, an official threatened to resign if passed.
It went brilliantly. The fact that Wegmans and other competitors didn’t charge for the bags hasn’t caused buyers to leave GreenStar, and of course, billing for bags is no longer a controversial practice, but almost universal.
Concerns and opinions differ, but GreenStar, and by extension its hometown, have long been grounds for questioning and change. The store and the city seem inextricably linked. As one member said recently, you may or may not like GreenStar, support it or not, but wouldn’t Ithaca be a very different place without it?