Updated: Apr 3
What is a food co-op and how can they change your neighborhood?
Introduction The Corona virus and technological innovation served as a double whammy against casually meeting your neighbor face to face. This writer himself can attest to the damage a fully charged Nintendo Switch can cause one’s social life. On a more serious note the rising lack of social interaction has been proven to be linked to rising depression rates and is unquestionably something corrosive.
However, the greatest way to motivate people to draw together is through a shared mission. Anne Sweeney, the former chair of Disney Media, once said “the greatest gifts you can give your team: clarity, communication and pulling people together around a shared mission.” Building a food co-op can offer that local community mission that we all desperately need.
But what is a food co-op?
A food co-op is a grocery store owned and operated by a large group of people who usually live around a specific geographic location. For example, in Greenbelt Maryland the Greenbelt Co-op Supermarket and Pharmacy is owned by a group of 11,000 individuals generally from the community.
“Owning” the store usually requires only a small membership fee, in the case of the Greenbelt Co-op, it can cost either $10 or $100 depending on if you want voting rights. As a member you can enjoy benefits like dividends, discounts and the option of being a board member.
Food co-ops are not considered standard small businesses by the US, and don’t face standard corporate taxes. Instead, the only taxation the members face is on an individual basis at distribution of dividends.
The greater purpose of a co-op is to serve the community and to provide agency to its community members. This means that in addition to selling food, they also usually serve some sort of community meeting grounds. Greenbelt offers wine tastings, as a way to bring together community members in a fun environment. Plus everyone in the community will feel more obligated to shop at and frequent the co-op as they have ownership. Looking back at the roots of the co-op movement, one will find the same societal mission.
Even in the late 1700s there were cooperative efforts. For example, in 1760, in the southern London district, Woolwich, dockworkers bonded together to form their own corn mills to help relieve pressure from the monopolistic mill-owners that would gauge them and provide low quality product. That being said, the first cooperative with all of the qualities that qualify as a co-op by today's standards was founded in the 19th century in Rochdale, a large town in Manchester, England.
The Rochdale Equitable Pioneers were a group of working class individuals who decided to forgo trying to reform the political system and instead worked towards more grassroots societal change.
This philosophy is reflected in their codified charter: “The objects and plans of this Society are to form arrangements for the pecuniary benefit, and the improvement of the social and domestic condition of its members, by raising a sufficient amount of capital in shares of one pound each, to bring into operation the following plans and arrangements.
The establishment of a store for the sale of provisions and clothing, etc.
The building, purchasing or erecting a number of houses, in which those members desiring to assist each other in improving their domestic and social condition may reside.
To commence the manufacture of such articles as the society may determine upon, for the employment of such members as may be without employment, or who may be suffering in consequence of repeated reductions in their wages.
As a further benefit and security to the members of this society, the society shall purchase or rent an estate or estates of land, which shall be cultivated by the members who may be out of employment, or whose labor may be badly remunerated.
That as soon as practicable, this society shall proceed to arrange the powers of production, distribution, education and government, or in other words to establish a self-supporting home- colony of limited interests, or assist other societies in establishing such colonies.”
Ultimately, they aimed to build a self contained community that in some ways mirrors the Israeli Kibbutz. However, their initial success with creating stores ended up requiring all of their focus, and the other aims fell to the wayside.
The co-op retail concept experienced a major revival in the US 1960s and 70s. They were marketed as a way of sourcing healthy food and as a way to establish basic infrastructure outside of capitalist institutions. Between 1969 and 1979, a total of 10,000 were established in college towns, hip neighborhoods and even working class neighborhoods. However, after the initial inertia of the hippie movement died down, many of the real logistical problems of the model caught up, and the co-op movement was caught overextended. Additionally, there were many ideological conflicts between the different factions of members that the movement was unable to overcome. As a result, most of the co-ops failed.
Today, in the US there are a bit more than 200 retail co-ops, but there are more that are being established yearly and the movement is slightly recovering. Though the overall movement of food co-ops has a murky future, one indisputable fact is that the shared project of a food co-op can be a very healthy meeting place for community members and a great way to build something meaningful.
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