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LIFE: Save Karma Co-op (Dec. 2022)

December 13th, 2022 · No Comments

Pandemic dealt a blow but with your help we are poised to recover

Shoppers in Karma’s produce section helping to keep the beloved brand viable. COURTESY KARMA CO-OP

By Bob Biderman

Although Karma Co-op Food Store has been my treasured second home for many decades, this gem of a neighbourhood grocery store is still not as widely known as it deserves to be. We’ve been operating since 1972 and have grown to provide a full-service, one-stop shopping experience for food, body, and homecare needs! Since 1978, our member-owned, democratically run, not-for-profit store has served customers at 739 Palmerston Ave., just north of Barton in Karma Lane. Open to the public and supported by members, Karma is the only member-owned co-op food store in Toronto.

To this day, I look forward to doing a weekly shop at our co-op. My partner and I are delighted by Karma’s long-standing focus on organic, bulk, zero waste, and fair-trade products, and its willingness to process special orders for its customers’ needs. We’re proud of the co-op’s competitively priced products and its emphasis on sourcing from local farmers, small producers, and other co-op businesses. While many of its members live nearby, I am far from alone in travelling some distance to do my shopping: a testament to the co-op’s services and values.

For me, Karma is more than just a food store; it is community. Since our earliest days, Karma members have organized picnics in the park, music in the parking lot, as well as cooking, craft, health, and music workshops. They have initiated friendships and arranged playdates for their kids. As a long-time member I’ve seen Karma kids grow up and shop at the co-op with their own children. Jane Jacobs, the urbanist activist who was a Karma member until she passed, was quoted as saying, “What we need is a Karma-like co-operative in every neighbourhood in North America.” 

When I think back to how Karma was born and how it has grown, the phrase that fits is collective action. As members, we pooled our resources to buy the building that Karma operates out of to this day. With volunteer labour, we removed the large brick ovens in what used to be a bakery, converting it into a food store. Volunteering remains a strong component of Karma’s values and membership requirements, with an option for members to opt out as needed and pay commensurate dues.

In these ways, Karma had been chugging along, but the pandemic really knocked us for a loop. Despite sales going through the roof for a short time, Karma had no choice but to suspend in-store volunteer efforts. Moreover, to protect the health and safety of the local community, Karma instituted a strict COVID protocol by limiting the number of shoppers in the store at any given time and insisting shoppers wear masks and shop at a distance from one another. Karma also asked members to shop no more than once a week. 

Of course, with stringent rules around shopping and reduced volunteer contribution, the sense of community and social cohesion at Karma was temporarily lost. Karma has always had a considerable number of new people wanting to join the co-op, but COVID negatively affected the growth of our membership. As someone who runs orientation events for new members at Karma, I had few, if any people to interact with. 

At the same time, chain stores pivoted aggressively to online shopping and delivery which Karma did not. It should come as no surprise then that revenue started to fall behind operational costs. Matters came to a head when recently our board of directors communicated to the membership that the co-op was in financial trouble and that unless the situation reversed, we would be unable to continue. 

The good news is that our members and supporters in the community have responded wonderfully, and sales have recently begun to approach pre-pandemic levels. Management is hard at work improving store operations. Members performed a price comparison with Fiesta Farms and Farm Boy which showed once again that Karma Co-op is the place to shop if you are looking to save money on groceries. The board has responded with a variety of measures which includes a plan to simplify membership and offer a discounted option for students, a partnership with another local co-op (Urbane Cyclist), outreach campaigns, and a two-month ‘no strings attached’ trial shop for those who want to check out what is new and what endures at Karma.

Do come, see for yourself, and don’t forget to sign up for an orientation session. This retired teacher derives great pleasure in meeting people new to Karma and talking about the co-op he is passionate about.


Tags: Annex · Life