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Gary Younge
Are you feeling cooperative?

I had plaits at the time; they poked out of the ill-fitting cap and could never be dried in time for the clean sweep of the mop-wielding maniac. And so it was that every Thursday morning at 9:35am a young black man would walk out on to Leningrad's main street with freezing braids and make his way over to his first translation class of the morning looking not unlike a hedgehog.

Until I came to Brooklyn this was my only experience of a co-op. It was interesting but it was not fun. So when, shortly after we had moved to Brooklyn, my partner suggested we join the Park Slope food cooperative, I was reluctant. Since the co-op demands that every adult in a household signs up or no one can join, my partner persisted. I suggested that she lie - not the first time that I would prove the weak moral link in this two-person chain - and tell them that she lived alone. When she refused, I was shamed into attending the orientation session, which is compulsory for all prospective members.

There, in the dim-lit formality of an evening class, a member explained the rules. To join you must pay $25 and invest $100, which is repayable if you leave. You work 2 hours and 45 minutes every four weeks in the store, doing a variety of tasks from checkout to childcare, usually in a regular squad with a squad leader. Pensioners, people with severe disabilities and the carers of people with disabilities may be excused from doing shifts; parental leave is granted on the birth of a new child. Only members can shop in the co-op, and it provides childcare for 12 children at a time.

If you miss a shift for whatever reason then you go on to "work alert" and have to do two "make-up" shifts to compensate. If you do not do the make-up shifts within a month you are given a grace period of 10 days when you can carry on shopping. If you still do not make up the deficit after the grace period, then you are suspended from shopping until you do. When you show up, you swipe in your membership card and the people at the desk will either wave you through, warn you that you are on work alert or a grace period, or tell you that you are suspended and ask you to leave.

What is the point? Since labour is the highest cost for most stores and co-op members do 75% of the work for nothing (it has 55 full-time staff), the food is cheaper. Since members own the store they also get to decide what kind of things to stock, which means a good range of healthy foods and environmentally friendly goods. Alongside the regular supermarket fare of cornflakes and orange juice, it sells organic tampons and "save the forest" granola, Green Forest lavatory paper ("soft on nature, soft on you") and a brand of shaving foam which bares the trademarked boast "obsessively natural". For carnivores there are corn-fed free-range chickens, grass-fed beef and kosher organic chicken livers. For those who think that treating animals well just so that you can slaughter them is a strange kind of hypocrisy (which I don't), there are vegan, vegetarian and raw-food alternatives aplenty.

It sounded ideal. I wanted no part in it. My list of plausible excuses was long and compelling. During the 25-minute walk it takes to get to the co-op, we pass at least three grocery stores. With all the travelling involved in my job I could not commit to a regular work schedule and with the long hours I already work I had no desire to work even more. But they basically added up to the fact that while I like healthy food, I would rather pay more for it than work more for it. My partner is made of tougher stuff. She said if I would join she would do my shifts as long as I would share the shopping. So while I wrote articles decrying gender inequality, my partner worked double shifts and carried my load. It took a while but even I could see bitter irony in that, particularly as many of her female co-workers were also covering for their partners.

So I gradually started to help out, taking on the make-up shifts when we fell behind. Over the past year I have stacked industrial quantities of broccoli and courgettes, and offloaded just about every kind of bagel known to humankind. I have debated with co-workers whether vegetables were too rotten to give to the local shelter (anything is potentially edible when you are hungry enough). I even got a work credit for doing a reading at a literary event there for Passover.

I would not call it fun. Only in the gym does the clock move slower than when I am trying to make sure I don't start a crime wave in this sedate part of town by mixing the Zapatista espresso coffee beans with the breakfast decaf. But there is still a quaint kind of camaraderie you build up with those around you.

"Be careful when you fill those up," says Theresa, my encouraging squad leader, when she hands over the coffee beans. "I work here and I still end up spilling them on the floor."

Half an hour later I asked her for the broom.

"Spill them on the floor?"

"Yes," I say, and she gives me a high five and a sympathetic smile.

The food co-op is easy to lampoon, as one New York Times writer did recently, as "the land of soya milk and honey". For a start, it is located in Park Slope, Brooklyn's equivalent of London's Islington. Then there is the air of ordered disorganic chaos that fills the store. Ask someone stacking shelves where to find something and, unless it is something they buy themselves, they will have no idea. Despite longstanding promises, you can only pay with cash, cheque (by special arrangement) or food stamps - no debit cards. You queue once to get rung up and then once again to pay. The narrow aisles are often clogged with trolleys full of goods waiting to be unpacked.

The co-op has its own newspaper - the LineWaiter's Gazette - and its own social calendar. It also has its own disciplinary system, meted out by the Orwellian-sounding Hearing and Deciding group, which can expel people for, among other things, "extremely uncooperative behaviour". The group rarely meets, but the fact that it exists shows how seriously the co-op takes its own rules. When one friend's father died she called to warn the co-op that she was going to miss a shift. When they insisted she do two make-up shifts to compensate, she objected. Only after several objections that went all the way to the top did they finally and grudgingly relent. "OK," said the person in charge. "But you only get one death in the family." Members have been known to call the co-op to report that friends are lying about disability and the size of their households. Little wonder that in 2004 the Village Voice voted it the "best place to experience how communism leads to fascism".

But people can only ridicule it because it exists and it exists, in no small part, because it has been prepared to enforce its own rules. With more than 13,000 members and a turnover of $25.6m (£14.7m) last year, it is the largest and longest-standing wholly member-owned and operated food co-op in the US. This is no small achievement in a city where people are supposed to seek anonymity and convenience rather than obligation and community.

While there appear to be relatively few Hispanic members, it is otherwise racially mixed. The regular chatter of foreign tongues suggest some recently arrived immigrants (although a Cuban friend refused to join because he said it reminded him too much of home) and my assumption that it was a middle-class enclave was dented when two different taxi drivers turned out to be members.

No one would have envisaged such a future back in 1973, when a group of friends joined together to see if they could save some money on food and eat well by banding together. "It was a period when we were all protesting against the war in Vietnam and we were activists who believed in community control," says Joe Moltz, a founder member. "We also believed in good food and that there was some price-gouging going on in the business community where organic food was concerned." So they rented some space on the second floor of what was the Mongoose community centre. They bought a bulk load of food one day and sold it the next.

Since then, its growth has been exponential, with membership almost trebling since 2001 when an extension was built. There are already grumbles among some members that once again the co-op is at capacity, with long lines at peak times.

For the time being I will not be among them. I am suspended. The work alerts were clearly not warning enough; my grace period expired like a pack of six-month-old tofu. My shopping privileges have been revoked. Before I can buy my own organic broccoli again, I must first stack everybody else's.

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