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FRESH FROM THE BELLY Co-op keeps '60s diet


Next to a flier urging a Coca Cola boycott, across the aisle from the garlic pills, stands the political agenda of The Belly food cooperative -- a holdover from the '60s back-to-nature movement that is struggling to survive the age of the microwave.

"Out of the belly of the old society is born the new!" reads the food-is-power manifesto tacked to the wall of the co-op in Waverly.

At The Belly, located on 31st Street near Greenmount Avenue, a $15 membership entitles you to a 5 percent discount on health foods like spelt flour (billed as "the most ancient grain,") vegetarian chili mix and organic rye berries.

It also allows you to peruse a bulletin board that is a ticket 30 years back in time. Where else could you find both a Zen meditation priest and an offer for "hypnotherapy for breaking free"?

Here is the only place in Baltimore where you can buy organic kiwi and sweet potatoes, goat's milk and raw honey while pondering philosophy and debating society's ills with co-op members who sit on worn stools and cinder blocks.

"It may not be state of the art, but we supply the needs to our people," says Gussie Tweedy, 62, The Belly's manager.

But hard times have hit the 17-year-old cooperative.

The membership card file, once full with 400 members, today holds only 75. Many distributors of home-grown organic foods have recently gone bankrupt.

All of this has left Ms. Tweedy wondering how to offer millet grain to a generation that seems hooked on fast food.

"The kind of food we sell is conducive to keeping people healthy," said Ms. Tweedy, a former hospital aide who has worked at The Belly since 1985. "But there has been a change in people's habits and ideology. This is not really a co-op town -- people want to work and become prosperous. They don't see this as upward mobility, and they forget that food is basic. They forget that if you don't eat right, you can't do anything else."

Ms. Tweedy said the co-op will have to add foods to its shelves that attract modern shoppers. The store already stocks instant soup, fresh spinach pies and a just-add-water "nature burger" mix of dehydrated vegetables and tofu. It is open until 8 o'clock most nights so customers can stop by after work.

"It would be nice to be like the '60s, but we move on," she said. "We need to get some frozen 'in a hurry foods' that will not damage people's health. But I do not believe we should sell out."

Ms. Tweedy, who stopped eating red meat long ago and is now trying to give up chicken, believes that people may again turn to organic and natural foods as they become more educated about processed food.

"People hate to give up the way they are eating," Ms. Tweedy said. "But a lot of times they get ill. They come in the door and say, 'I've got to change the way I eat.' Some people say to me, 'Why would they do that to the food when it's dangerous to you?' "

Ms. Tweedy is The Belly's only paid staff member, earning an hourly wage of $6.25. Most of the chores are done by volunteers who work at least four hours a month in return for an additional discount.

Any profit from the operation goes toward repairs and new equipment. Last year, the co-op depleted its reserves by buying a new cash register, air conditioning and a scale. Shoppers, some of whom come weekly from Pennsylvania, bring their own jars and recycled shopping bags.

What about the unusual name? That, too, grew out of the '60s-style thinking of the co-op's founders.

"It was a political thing to have a cooperative and control your own food," Ms. Tweedy explained. "Man really travels on his stomach. You can take anybody to their knees on their belly."

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