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Food brood: Catonsville Cooperative Market offers fresh local produce, sense of community

For Robin Kessler, who serves as the distribution manager for the Catonsville Cooperative Market, every other Tuesday is a long, busy and even fruitful day.

The market is open every other Tuesday from 4:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the kitchen of the Immanuel United Church of Christ, located at 1905 Edmondson Ave. That means Kessler arrives at 6 a.m. and will work about 11 hours performing a variety of tasks that help the market set up and do business for the day.

The difference between this operation and most other markets is that Kessler, like everyone else associated with the Catonsville Cooperative Market, donates her time. In what is truly a group effort, the community-owned grocery store hopes to grow even larger and perhaps one day open in its own facility. What may make that effort come to fruition is that its members strongly believe in the spirit and concept of the cooperative.

“I enjoy it a lot,” said Kessler, a Westgate resident and retired teacher. “I have an amazing group of co-workers, and we really have fun [with this].”

As of mid-August, the market, which started about seven years ago with a small group of people who were seeking local natural and organic products, has 297 members who paid $200 for lifetime memberships. The benefits that come with that membership fee include voting rights, a voice in what can be ordered for the market and dividends if a fully operational store eventually opens. Most of the members are from Catonsville, although there are also some from Arbutus, Ellicott City and Baltimore City.

Opening any kind of market on a daily basis requires a huge amount of work, but even doing it just once every other Tuesday requires plenty of effort.

“Co-ops have been around for over 40 years, and because we are member-owned, we need enough members and member investment to open a store,” said Carri Beer, a board member and past president who remains active with the operation. “That’s where we currently are, trying to grow our membership so we can have those members [and] make fiscal investments.”

Beer and Kessler said that about 45 to 55 hours of work are needed to prepare for doing business every other Tuesday because so many tasks must be completed.

Julie Largay, a vendor manager among her other duties who also served as volunteer coordinator for about 18 months, works with more than 20 vendors. It takes about 12 hours to place all the orders, she said. However, Largay likes to stagger her times working on this to keep them from happening in one week.

“It’s a lot of logistics,” Largay said.

Beer, who is an architect, and Largay, an epidemiologist, both are glad to be helping the market in their free time. Largay came upon the cooperative by chance.

“I’m a public health person, and nutrition is really important to me,” she said. “I’ve lived [in Catonsville] three years… and I saw the co-op on a bumper sticker. I Googled it and thought it was cool.”

She joined soon after and became a board member within months.

Kessler said the market sells farm-to-market produce that’s fresh as well as various types of meat and fish, dry goods and ice cream. There are also snack items such as salsa, pickles, chips and nuts.

Co-op members shopping at the market enter through a door on the side or in the back of Immanuel United Church of Christ, where the enterprise has been located since 2014. Prior to that, members rotated handling small orders at people’s houses. The use of the church resulted from the Rev. Beverly Lewis supporting the co-op’s mission.

Once inside the building, members see a setup much like a farmer’s market, with wood crates and shelves displaying goods set atop tables in two rooms. There’s also a freezer for items such as the ice cream.

When finished, shoppers take their bags and items to a long table, where a few seated volunteers serve as cashiers. Two shifts totaling six volunteers handle that task while the market is open. Members are not required to volunteer at the market.

Food, though, is only part of the co-op’s story. The owner-members are committed to helping the Catonsville community and its local and regional farmers and producers of various food items. When open, the market resembles a bunch of friends and family interacting rather than shoppers picking around to fill their food list.

Debbie Rosier, who lives in Catonsville, sees the market as a place to take care of a few things at once.

“I just think that it’s a great community gathering place,” Rosier said while talking to Beer at the market on a night earlier this month. “It’s a great place for me to get all of the local supplies that I want, and I see friends and neighbors. It is a little family.”

Katy Ekey, of Catonsville, was at the market the same night, toting five bags while searching for a variety of food. She really likes the ice cream and enjoys shopping there.

“My husband and I joined because we wanted to contribute to this endeavor in the community,” Ekey said. “We just really like supporting them, and they have a great selection of stuff.”

Kessler said the market takes pride in obtaining a wide variety of goods despite its size, and they want to keep those who pay the fee satisfied.

Yet, they also hope to continue their steady growth and to hopefully open that free-standing store within two years. That growth is being monitored by more volunteers on the business side who are working on things like marketing, outreach and a business plan — a whole different arm.

“We are doing our best to grow, and I think we’re getting better at it,” Kessler said. “This is a small, little sample of what we want to become. We’re just growing our membership to get to that point.”

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