Joining a cooperative is one small step toward bringing locally sourced and organic groceries to your community – and one giant step toward food activism.
Ursula Sautter | September 2010 issue
At first, the task seemed impossible. Get 2,000 people, mostly strangers, to give $200 each to support a grocery store that doesn’t exist yet. But that’s exactly what David Marangio and a dedicated group of community-oriented foodies have been doing in the last year, handing out flyers, setting up booths at street fairs and organizing community meetings in their Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood. Their goal is to open a food co-op, a grocery store that would be owned and, in this case, run by its members, with a mission to bring locally sourced and organic food to the community—at a discount.
“People are much more aware of the food choices they can have,” says Marangio, a 45-year-old former real estate agent who’s been organizing the Bay Ridge Food Co-op while finishing his graduate degree in public policy. “The unmistakable draw is the quality of the food and the lower prices.”
It’s an ideal moment for food co-ops, and they’re booming. Some 300 of them have taken root in the U.S., and while that’s a tiny fraction of the overall grocery market, another 200 are in varying degrees of development, says Stuart Reid, director of Food Co-op Initiative, a group that helps people start these co-ops. “If even half of those succeed, it’s a dramatic increase.”
Joining a co-op is a small act of food activism—a repudiation of big corporate food. Right now, it’s also big business. Thanks in part to books like Food, Inc. and the relentlessly excellent stories about the food industry by journalist Michael Pollan, we now care very much about where our food comes from, who harvested it, where it was grown, how far it traveled and whether its genes have been modified.
“People are getting sick and tired of business that’s not mindful of ethics,” says Robynn Schrader, executive director of the National Cooperative Grocers Association. “People are looking for an alternative, something they can trust, something that keeps their money in the community.”
Co-ops manifest all these values. They are often active in local community services, and while they might sell conventional brands of cereal, these will be clearly labeled and shoppers will always be able to find a genetically unmodified alternative. Flax flakes, anyone?
At the same time, the economic downturn has been something of a boon to co-ops. While we have learned to seek sustainable, ethical food sources, those organic, locally grown heirloom tomatoes at the Sunday market aren’t cheap. Neither are the organic and natural options at conventional supermarkets. One of the best-known natural food supermarkets in America, Whole Foods, has been trying to shake the “Whole Paycheck” nickname almost since inception. Getting a discount or an annual dividend for shopping at a local co-op can make a significant difference in a family’s food budget.
Existing American food co-ops have weathered the recent economic storms better than their competitors, the traditional natural food stores. In the second quarter of 2009, sales at natural food stores dropped 12 to 13 percent compared to the same time period in 2008, while sales at food co-ops dipped just 4 percent.
In Europe, too, co-ops are growing. Germany hosts an estimated 400 food co-ops and counting, with more would-be members than the existing co-ops can handle. “We’re only accepting new members when an old member quits,” says Tom Albrecht, who heads the Berlin-based Federal Working Group of Food Cooperatives. In Britain, the Co-operative Group, a member-owned retailer that includes groceries, logs about $21.4 billion in sales annually. After a series of mergers, the company boasts 3,000 food stores in the U.K.
All of these businesses funtion slightly differently. Many co-ops are open to the public—from the outside, they look just like any other independently owned natural food store. But the markets are owned and governed by their members, who pay a fee to join—as little as $10 at some stores, as much as $100 at others. In return, they get voting rights and financial benefits, usually some combination of a discount, access to special sales and, when the co-op is profitable, an annual dividend.
Other co-ops still rely on members for labor—in addition to a fee to join, there’s a work requirement. At the small Food Co-op Bergmannstrasse Berlin, in the German capital, the members pitch in an hour of work every six weeks. At the 16,000-member Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, New York, members work one two-hour-and-45-minute shift every four weeks.
At these co-ops and others with a work requirement, shopping is often restricted to members. By using member labor, co-op directors argue, they can offer better food at lower prices. The Park Slope Food Coop, for example, has 67 paid employees, but members stock shelves, check out shoppers, sweep the floors and staff the membership offices, among other things. A co-op of similar size where members don’t work employs about 200 more people to do all that work. But by not requiring members to work, representatives say, co-ops appeal to a wider range of people, including the stressed out and time strapped.
Regardless of business model, almost all food co-ops share a commitment to whole food. At some stores, you can find four kinds of agave nectar alongside the honey, locally raised free-range chickens in the cooler and several kinds of flour. Others have shelves of vitamins and supplements. Selling food in bulk is also common. At the annual meetings, members discuss the ethics and philosophy of a decision to sell (or stop selling) bottled water, or whether to boycott bananas. “The best way to get a turnout in annual [member] meetings is to say, ‘We’re going to talk about sugar,’” laughs Elizabeth Archerd, who has worked at the Wedge, a 14,000-member food co-op in Minneapolis, since 1974.
Of course, in spite of the apparent appetite for food co-ops, communities struggle to open the stores and keep them afloat. To rent a space takes money, and it isn’t easy to get hundreds or even thousands of people to commit and then wait—maybe years—for a store to open.
Or so David Marangio, the co-op organizer from Brooklyn, is learning. More than two years after the first community organizing meeting, the Bay Ridge Food Co-op has signed up 200 members, representing a $40,000 commitment from would-be workers—not small potatoes, but a long way from the 2,500 members and $400,000 Marangio and the organizers estimate they need to open and develop a storefront.
In the meantime, baby cooperative steps. From the membership, 70 families got together and formed a community supported agriculture (CSA) group in the neighborhood, and bought part of a local farmer’s harvest. It was so successful, Marangio says, they hope to start a second CSA next year.
And the storefront? It’s coming soon, he hopes. “If our goals were more modest, we could be smaller, and that would be faster,” he says. “But we have to compete with [online grocery-delivery service] Fresh Direct for customers, so we need an excellent shopper experience.”
For the new breed of food co-ops, it seems, oddly enough, that competition is the only way to cooperation.
Janet Paskin dutifully works her Thursday night shopping shift at her coop in Brooklyn, New York.