As I stood in the checkout line on their last day — laden with too much cheese and veggies — my mind raced, thinking of the 200 people who would be without jobs soon, wondering why Watertown needed yet another lab facility for a biotech company instead of a market. My kids would no longer be able to prowl through the Christmas trees stacked up outside each December. My wife would need to find a replacement for the especially spicy maror (horseradish) that would make us tear up at Passover. There were so many memories etched into that place, into the food and finding your favorite meal’s ingredients.
As I stood in that checkout line with my mind racing, I knew one thing: our communities deserve a grocery store that will last for the next 100 years. On that day, I set out to learn why there are no food co-ops currently open in Central or Eastern Massachusetts; I learned that Maynard and Dorchester have been rethinking their grocery stores for nearly a decade. Watertown, Newton, and Waltham deserve the same: a grocery store that delivers on the diversity of products that Russo’s offered, with a deep focus on sustainability and building up our local communities. I quickly found a few Facebook groups aligned with grieving our grocery store loss, and threw together a quick booth for two town fairs last fall to see if there was any community interest in starting a co-operative. I was blown away by the response: hundreds of email pledges collected and literal tears shed from passersby on sight of seeing a Russo’s paper bag at the booth with a sign saying “Miss this?”
The age of Zoom has made community organizing much easier to plan and execute. By the winter we had a solid bi-weekly meeting set-up, and with the help of the Food Co-op Initiative, we began to turn ideas for starting a community-owned store into reality. We connected with the Neighboring Food Co-op Association, a New England regional group of startup and veteran co-ops who helped us draft by-laws to establish a “multi-stakeholder” co-operative, owned by its consumers and workers. Once we navigated the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s morass of bureaucracy to officially file all our paperwork (tip for future co-ops: just file via fax), we became a real co-operative corporation as of April 25th 2022: The Charles River Food Co-operative, Inc.
We kicked off a membership drive in June and have had an immense start: 420 community members have bought a share to help a new store open. At $200 for a share (good for life), we now have some initial capital to power our momentum. Our next steps are clear: run a market study to see where a store will be most successful, build a budget for making the numbers work given Boston’s real estate market, and devise a way for all communities to participate economically in this new venture no matter their income level.
In an age where grocery stores are owned by billionaires who want to go to space, have googly-eyed security robots patrolling the aisles, or simply offer inhospitable, sterile experiences, we can choose a different path for our communities. If you stood in line those last few weeks at Russo’s wondering where you were going to get your good produce next, or what you could do to help, we have an answer for you: become a member of the Charles River Food Co-op. It’s time for a food co-operative just west of Boston that’s locally owned, forever.
Watertown Resident & Board President of Charles River Food Co-op