The Swarthmore Community Co-Op
The Swarthmore Food Co-op was founded in 1932, around the start of the Great Depression, to help bring fresh food to the area. It is now the third oldest food cooperative in the country and continues to be an important part of the community. A couple of years ago, the co-op began partnering with Philly Food Rescue (PFR) to help reduce their food waste, and it has been a symbiotic relationship ever since. PFR reached out to chat with co-op General Manager Mike Litka to understand the importance of the co-op in the Swarthmore community, particularly during the pandemic, and how the co-op came to partner up with PFR.
The co-op model is based on building a business that is both owned by and serves the community. In the case of the Swarthmore Co-op, this means that the employees are community based, the food is locally sourced, and the town of Swarthmore is being supported. Litka sees a need for this now more than ever, stating that “In today’s world, people are talking about big business, corporate greed and things of that nature. The co-operative model really shines, and I think embodies what people are looking for in a community owned business. It’s about serving the community, being there for the community, and being part of the community.” The co-op sources from over 150 local producers and farmers, and about 60% of sales come from these local products, directly supporting the community where the products came from.
While a large part of Litka’s love for his work centers around the food being supplied and bought by community members, it goes deeper than that. The co-op focuses solely on the audience it serves all the way up to the corporate level. Litka articulates that “it’s really exciting to be part of an organization that builds the product mix around what the community wants rather than have that be determined by the corporate office.” The co-op model allows the organization to be built for and around the community at all levels, and that is what makes it so important today.
As a consumer-facing business, the co-op has had to deal with the pandemic head on and adapt to meet the needs of the community. They are currently seeing about 60% of their normal customer count, but they were able to minimize their losses by acting fast when it came to new processes and protocols. The co-op has been able to develop their own delivery system to serve those staying at home in addition to ramping up the safety protocols within the store. Litka states that “because [they] are a small store, [they] were able to put a lot of different implementations in like requiring masks, limiting the amount of people, and maximizing food safety and sanitation.” Litka also noted that they were one of the first markets to put in Plexiglas sheets as a form of protection. Being a small, community-based business meant that people trusted they could shop there safely.
Another reason the co-op has been able to maintain their services is because they do not have to rely on large distributors for their supplies. Their incredible community partnerships allowed them to receive a constant stream of local products rather than having to depend on mass suppliers. This allowed them to stay in business throughout the entirety of the pandemic, which is something that Litka is extremely proud of.
In addition to their support of the individuals and food suppliers of Swarthmore, the co-op helps support other community-based organizations, like Philly Food Rescue (PFR). Mike found out about PFR through the local farmers market, where a lot of the vendors are also suppliers of the co-op. After hearing about what PFR does, Mike described it as a dream come true. Being in the food business for over 30 years, he had always struggled with food waste and how to minimize it. Other organizations might delay in picking up donations, and food would go bad waiting. Our partnership solved this problem, as Litka states, “Philly Food Rescue is an organization committed to having a day or days for volunteers to come pick up…that is a game changer in the industry.” PFR and the Swarthmore Co-op have now been partnering up for two years and continue to send food to those in need. When asked about what a partnership like this means, he had this to say:
“I think it adds a sense of belonging. Partnering with places like [Philly Food Rescue] adds community. Knowing that we’re doing right for the right reasons. The things we’re doing, we’re doing them for purpose and reason and to make the community better. This is hands on, feet on the ground, having direct and immediate impact.”
Philly Food Rescue is proud to work with the Swarthmore Co-op in our fight to end hunger and rescue food in the Philadelphia area. Thank you to Mike Litka for this incredible conversation, and to the co-op for all the amazing work they have accomplished.