“Faith is a stray pet that will somehow find you again.” David Hernandez, deceased poet.
For the better part of 40 years, my fondest memory of retail food coops was the day they closed. Even though my heart was broken, the handwritten “Out of Bizness” sign hung from the ill-fated venture’s front door signaled the end of my misery and the first day of the rest my life. With a faith born out of an over-heated idealism, I had sacrificed a living, a bit of my health, and no small part of my soul to the notion that funky storefront coops could ride like the cavalry to the rescue of supermarket-abandoned communities. With the store’s end a painful certainty, I could now retreat into rehab to recover my sanity.
That’s why it felt like some form of divine intervention when I received the invitation to speak at this year’s Consumer Cooperative Management Association conference in Austin. While I no longer broke out in hives when someone would ask me about coops, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was being called back to a church I had long since slammed the door on. Either way, I could hardly address 400 retail food coop managers and board members with a bad attitude, or like the angry Presbyterian ministers of my youth, chastise them for failing to solve all of America’s food problems.
As it turned out, and as my research turned up, my path to coop redemption was far easier than I thought. No longer operating out of the back of your neighbor’s garage, coop food stores are full-fledged business enterprises, managed by a professional staff, and generally well capitalized. They are not necessarily single-store operations either. The Puget Consumer Coop in Seattle has ten stores with an eleventh on the way. La Montanita in New Mexico has five stores with a sixth expected within the year. And annual sales are also nothing to sneeze at. The Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn has 16,000 members and $48 million in annual sales. Burlington, Vermont’s City Market-Onion River Coop has 8,000 members and $33 million in sales. Nationwide, combined coop sales are in the billions and official membership exceeds 1.3 million.
But it’s not only their growth and impressive business performance that distinguishes coops; it’s their adherence to a set of inviolate principles that have also made them successful social enterprises. In the course of my research and interaction with CCMA conference goers, I came across amazing stories of true democracy in the workplace and marketplace, efforts to educate and inform eaters, initiatives to reduce hunger, and strategies to develop regional agriculture and resilient communities.
Like food coops everywhere, the Good Foods Coop in Lexington, Kentucky holds firm to the principles of open membership, democratic control, member ownership and financing, community concern, equality, equity, and solidarity. Growing since 1972, Good Foods now occupies a lovely 12,000 sq. ft. space that I had the privilege to visit a year ago. In addition to selling great food, the coop makes monthly donations to local nonprofits, assists a local food pantry, and participates in nutrition and health programs.
Thanks to a survey of coop activity by Darrow Vanderburg-Wertz, I learned how coops are reaching out to their community’s low-income residents. The City Market-Onion River Coop in Burlington, Vermont accepts SNAP and WIC benefits which represent about $1.3 million of their $33 million in annual sales; has volunteer work options that allow discounts on purchases; makes free deliveries to senior housing complexes, offers free cooking classes to discounted members, and partners with the state WIC program to offer frugal shopping and basic cooking programs, which includes incentive gift cards to encourage WIC participants to shop at the Coop.
The spirit of coops and their promise to rejuvenate economically depressed communities is alive and well in Dorchester, MA where citizens and members recently raised $26,000 toward their new store. They now have almost 300 members and, building off a successful community garden and farmers’ market, have started a $2 million capital campaign to build out a space for a coop food store in an area that can only be called a food desert. And according to Joe Amedeo, board member of the newly founded Bethlehem (Penn.) Food Coop, work is underway to bring a coop to a couple of food deserts communities in that former steel city’s downtown.
My “hometown coop,” La Montanita, is New Mexico’s leader in buying and distributing local food. Through their warehousing, local business investment programs, and extended partnerships, including an innovative mobile grocery program operating in vast and sparsely populated Native American Pueblos, they are sourcing 1100 local products from 400 local producers, which now represent 20% of their coop’s sales.
I learned from the Sacramento and Davis Food Coops that coops aren’t just interested in buying local, they want to ensure that there will be a local to buy from. Through a member supported effort, the two coops are raising funds to purchase an easement on the Central Valley organic farm owned by Jeff and Annie Main. A documentary film “The Last Crop,” that tells the story of the farm and the coops’ efforts to preserve it, is in the making. Once the funds are raised – not a foregone conclusion but certainly a likely one – the farm will be farmed in perpetuity and the coops will have astutely protected a portion of their food supply.
From a fine paper written by Kelsey Byrd and Celeste Winston that compared food coops to Walmart, I was reminded of the extraordinary history and work of New Hampshire’s Hanover Co-op, started in 1936. The coop recently intervened to take over a failed independent grocer in the lower middle-income town of White River Junction, Vermont. In spite of the high risk associated with re-opening a store in this area, the coop saw an opportunity to sell high quality food at low prices to people who needed both. The coop saved jobs, expanded the market for local food, improved the local economy by keeping more food dollars in the community, and earned an enormous amount of goodwill.
While not every member of the Hanover Coop was excited by this investment, one board member told me that, “yes, we could have used our profits to give our members lower prices, but chose instead to open a store in a community that needed one.” A similar sentiment was echoed by a Puget Consumer Coop board member who said that the coop is solicited all the time by affluent Seattle area neighborhoods that want a PCC store, but their new store will open in a lower income community for three reasons: the success of their earlier stores gave them the necessary resources to assume a modest level of risk, the new store is projected to be financially successful, and their values dictate that a needier neighborhood should come first.
How do coops compare overall to Wal-Mart and other conventional supermarkets? Food coops spend 38% of their revenues locally compared to 24% by conventional grocers; source 20% of their products locally compared to 6%; keep 17% more money in the community; sell 82% of their produce as organic compared to 12%, and create significantly more full-time workers with benefits.
Now, I do find that I spend more money for food at my coop than I do for comparable items at an Albertson’s Supermarket. But I know that every extra dime I spend is being reinvested in the coop, going back to members, paying workers a living wage and decent benefits, buying from local farmers, and strengthening the economic underpinnings of my community. Can Albertson’s or Wal-Mart make those claims?
Given the extraordinary commitment to community development by the retail coop movement over the past decade, you have to wonder why the Obama Administration turned to Walmart to re-store America’s food deserts. It’s highly likely that a modest public investment by the federal government (and states as well) in a coop-oriented food store development strategy would achieve a higher rate of return to community equity, workers, regional agriculture, and healthier food, to say nothing of citizen democracy!
But therein lies the rub, and I think the promise as well, that coops can and should play a much larger role in the rejuvenation of our local and regional food systems. Like a torch under a bushel basket, coops only burn bright for the limited number of eyes that can see them. A bigger noise and a broader beam are called for, ones that could be projected far and wide if the millions of coop members and shoppers rolled up their sleeves and became politically active.
Coops aren’t by any means neophytes in the world of public policy. They’ve been on the frontlines in the state and federal battles to label genetically engineered food, for instance. But imagine one million coop members getting severely agitated about food insecurity, poverty and the nation’s wealth gap, and the growing unsustainability of our food system. Congress would listen, state legislatures would listen, and the general public would not only perk up, it might even buy a coop membership.
Yes, my faith in coops as a force for community-level change has been restored. But the time has come for coops to take what they’ve done so well, albeit on a smaller scale, and go big, get loud, and show the country that cooperative development just might be the ticket to social justice and a democratically controlled food system.