IN THE beginning there was bologna. On white bread. Even hot dogs. It was 1969 and conscientious objector Jim Bowling started Washington's first food co-op as an alternative service project. People gathered in the basement of St. Stephen and then Grace Church, decided what they wanted to buy, ordered it wholesale and divided up.
Enter the macro-biotic missionaries. Suddenly, natural foods got tossed into the great liberal grab bag. People tailored their diets to a small planet, and what the club ordered became mostly of the whole wheat variety. So many converts jumped onto the organic bandwagon that the food buying club had to rent warehouse space to store their bounty. Then they started to sell the surplus at a no profit to anyone who wanted. Word spread; and Glut was born. In ensuing years, other co-ops sprouted like mung beans, and although several have gone under or succumbed to the minted green goddess of capitalism, a handful survived the '60s intact and still offer whole foods for the faithful and curious at lowest possible prices.
Shopping at a food co-op elevates grocery buying to a political statement. You swallow some socialism along with your bean sprouts. While dipping into barrels of stone ground cracked whole wheat flour and filling recycled gallon jugs with pure unsweetened apple cider, all under the approving eyes of Che, you somehow are doing something for the Cause. You are striking a blow against the evil capitalistic forces that poison our food, pollute our air and oppress Third World peoples everywhere. For an instant life has the crystal polarity of a '60s anti-war demonstration: There are the good guys and the bad guys. And you, with your bags and bottles, are clearly one of the former. Safeway will never seem the same.
To have it all together when you go to a food co-op, remember to bring recycled grocery bags -- nay, a Save-a-Tree knapsack -- in which to tote home bean sprouts, tofu and goat's milk cheese. Into your ecological carryall tuck jars for buying honey, soy oil and tamari sauce. More important, don't forget to have said jars weighed before filling them with precious organic fluids. Dutifully jot down the prices of bulk items like brown rice and corn meal so you don't hold up the check-out line. Also take time to read the co-op bulletin board so you'll know what to boycott this week. And above all, be non-sexist in this New Age oasis and refrain from giving the eye to the down-vested self-styled mountain men and earth mothers who shop there.
This is basic co-op etiquette.
But to be truly at one with your co-op, you must dress appropriately. Here where the lentils and chick peas flow, the motto is "Love animals, don't eat them." This also means don't wear them. So leave the chinchilla home. The diamond earrings, too. And no Pierre Cardin three-piecers, either. Opt instead for the urban mountaineer look otherwise known as L. L. Bean meets the Salvation Army. Children, too, should be properly attired, like they just stepped off the commune, in overalls and flannel shirts. And heavens, under no circumstances should they ask for candy.
Weekends are the best time to shop at a co-op. As a matter of fact, unless you're a self-employed soul or parenting full-time, weekends may be the only time to shop at a co-op. There are no organic 7-Elevens. Whole earth types refuse to be slaves to the dollar and co-ops are seldom open past 8 or on Sunday. In this vein, workers and management -- usually one and the same -- are free-spirited birds of feather who take herbal tea breaks when need be, so check hours before carting over your bags, egg cartons, etc. Recently, a friend arrived at the Bethesda Community Co-op, with co-op gear in tow, only to find it closed daily from 2:30 to 3:15.
Also if you have your heart set on a particular goody like Haagen Daz or havarti, call to see if it's still on the shelves. Co-ops don't have the vast storerooms of a Super Giant and usually only get deliveries once a week. Best bet is to find out when the delivery truck carrying the sublime sustenance you crave arrives and be there.
Any way you slice it, shopping at a co-op is much more of a chore than free-wheeling through a slick supermarket. So why abandon the opulently stocked wide-open aisles with their uniformed attendants for bare walls, barrels and latter-day flower children?
"I like it for ethical philosophical reasons but also because of the food," said Dann Everts, as he hefted a 50-pound bag of brown rice into Fields of Plenty, the Adams-Morgan co-op. Bar-headed and swathed in a baggy tweed overcoat on a snowy Saturday, Everts had volunteered to help truck in needed reinforcements from the Community Warehouse, supplier of grains, nuts and legumes to area co-ops. Everts, economic secretary with the Dutch embassy, said the co-op is the closest thing he's found to European markets in price and quality.
At the Bethesda Co-op, clinical psychologist May Leisinger watched a volunteer cut and wrap cheeses. "It's a lovely atmosphere. There's something wholesome and early American about the spirit here." Another shopper concurred that he felt like a pioneer come to town for supplies as honey streamed into the jar he held underneath the vat. Leisinger added "I can buy foods here I can't get elsewhere for these prices. You know, you young people aren't the only ones who like this kind of eating."
The kind of eating she means includes farm fresh brown eggs, undyed handcut cheeses, locally grown organic vegetables, organic whole wheat macaroni, spinach spaghetti, fresh ground peanut butter, steel cut oats, almonds and cashews, unsulphured raisins, apricots, pears, zahidi dates, khadrawi dates, three kinds of figs, teas, spices, oils, honey and molasses -- all in bulk. Plus thick crusty whole-wheat breads, unsweetened fruit juices, cakes and cookies made with fruit and honey -- at lower than health food store prices. But it wasn't always so. THE CO-OPS
BETHESDA AVENUE CO-OP -- 4949 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda, Md. 986-0796. Monday through Friday 10 to 2 and 3:15 to 7; Saturday 10 to 6. For three hours a month you get a 10 percent discount, three hours a week brings it to 20 percent. Meetings are every other Tuesday at 8:30.
FIELDS OF PLENTY -- 2437 18th St. NW. 483-3884. Monday to Saturday, 9:30 to 8; Sunday, 12 to 4:30. A minimum of six hours of work a month nets a 20 percent discount. Call for meetings.
GLUT -- 4005 34th St., Mt. Ranier, Md. 779-1978. Monday to Wednesday, 10 to 7; Thursday and Friday, 10 to 8; Saturday and Sunday 10 to 7. $2.50 in food per hour worked. Meetings every Monday at 8:30.
THE UNCOMMON MARKET -- 2400 Colombia Pike, Arlington, Va.920-6855. Monday through Friday, 2:30 to 9. Saturday 10 to 5. Three hours a month and a $20 share in the co-op work a month equals a 20 per cent discount. Meetings alternative Wednesdays at 7:30.
UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND CO-OP -- Student Union Building, College Park, Md. 454-5868. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 10 to 5; Wednesday 10 to 4; Saturday, 11 to 4. For an hour's work you get a free lunch; more than five hours a week gets you 25 percent discount. Open meetings are Wednesday at 5.