What’s A Food Co-op And How Can We Get A Piece Of That Action?

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East End Food Co-Op Picnic

A food co-op is a while lot more than just a discount grocery store.

Cooperative grocery stores are popping up all over the place, especially with the current dual (and sometimes contradictory) desires for whole foods and discount prices. Yet the phrase “food co-op” conjures images of long haired, plaid shirted vegans arguing over whether or not canola oil is pure enough to stock on their shelves or, in the case of the fabled Park Slope Coop in Brooklyn, of well-to-do slackers sending their nannies off to fulfill their work shifts while they get manicures and complain about taxes.

But that can’t be the whole story, right?

The History

Cooperation goes back as far as human history itself, with early man sharing the burdens of hunting, farming and building shelter in order to help the group to thrive as a whole. More formalized cooperatives began to take shape in the 1700’s, when people started moving off of the farms (where they grew their own food) into the cities (where they were ripped off by overpriced, privately owned shops.) Taking matters into their own hands, these community-minded pioneers banded together, bought supplies collectively and organized their own distribution.

The modern cooperative movement, as we know it today, was born in 1844 in Rochdale, England, where a group of textile mill workers called the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers established a formal set of principles that form the backbone of all coops today:

  • Open Membership
  • Democratic Control
  • Dividend on Purchase (like stock dividends)
  • Limited Interest on Capital (but most of the cash goes back into the co-op)
  • Political and Religious Neutrality
  • Cash Trading (lets not get into debt, here)
  • Promotion of Education
  • These basic rules brought a social conscience into business, and the original Rochdale shop (which opened with just a few sacks of butter, flour, sugar, oatmeal and candles) became the cornerstone of a movement that swept the UK with 1000 such shops opening up in the next decade.

    Today, in the United States alone, there are over 300 cooperatively run businesses, some of which have hundreds of stores and outlets all over the country. The food co-ops are one of the fastest growing categories, as they serve such an immediate purpose and are relatively easy to set up. Some are open to the public and some serve only members, while all offer discounted food often placing an emphasis on natural, organic and minimally processed foods, and locally produced goods. To get an idea of what’s out there, we checked out three co-ops in three different parts of the country.

    The Park Slope Food Coop

    park slope food coop

    Hunting for strawberries at the Prak Slope Food Coop. Photo by Melissa Peffs on Flickr.

    Foodcoop.com – the URL says it all. This Brooklyn cooperative is one of the originals, and it is a spot that people love to hate. Google “Park Slope Food Coop” and you’ll turn up no end of blog posts, articles and other rants deriding the insularity, or the snobbishness, or the takes-itself-too-seriously-ness of the place.

    But look past these critics, and you’ll find a place that is truly dedicated to the concept of providing great food and a sense of community to folks from all walks of life. Open only to it’s members, the price of belonging is a nominal fee of $25 and a $100 investment deposit, which is refundable if you terminate your membership.

    The real cost is in sweat equity – all members must work just under three hours a month. On any given day, you’ll find school teachers working alongside artists, stockbrokers and even movie stars, cutting hunks of cheese or restocking shelves. Member-owners, as participants are called here, are organized into squads, so that they generally work with the same folks every month and really develop a sense of camaraderie as well as some expertise in say, butchering, or the various types of dried beans on offer. These shifts also give members a true sense of being a part of a community and of ownership in the place, which is something money just can’t buy.

    The Ocean Beach People’s Organic Food Market

    OB People's

    Ah southern California, home of the massive, sun-drenched, produce-filled, eco-friendly glorious OB People's food shopping experience. Photo by Osbornb on Flickr.

    Jet across the country to San Diego and check out food co-ops, California-style. What began as a small neighborhood buying club in 1971 has blossomed into a 7660 square foot, two story green building housing a deli with prepared foods, produce, perishable and grocery sections, plus extensive vitamin, home and body care departments. Here, all comers can partake in the splendor of organic-whenever-possible produce and natural goods on offer, though a $15 annual membership fee hooks you up with the deep discounts that have become such a draw for these places.

    No work shifts are required at OB People’s, but you can be an integral part of management by running for the Board of Directors or joining one of several committees devoted to various aspects of running the place. There are also all sorts of interesting seminars, classes and events – this month alone boasts seminars on aromatherapy and macrobiotic living, tool and knife sharpening service out front, a lecture on reducing your sugar cravings before the holidays and a Halloween party with healthy treat bags for the kids.

    Belfast Co-op Store

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    Store appreciation day a the Co-op in Belfast, Maine. Photo by kthread on Flickr.

    Head “down east” to the rocky shores of the Maine coast and you’ll likely run into yet another one of the original cooperative food shops: The Belfast Co-op. Alive and kicking since 1976, this haven for all things fresh and natural offers it’s members (and anyone else lucky enough to walk through it’s doors) not only the best in local and most often organic produce, but an extensive bulk section with an impressive array of dried herbs and spices from all over the world.

    There is also a heavenly selection of local and humanely raised meats as well as artisanal cheeses and, of course, fresh seafood from the Penobscott bay. They place a heavy emphasis on educating the community about wellness, and have an exhaustive selection of natural remedies to help cure whatever it is that might ail you.

    Each member pays a fully refundable $60 “equity investment” for the first three years (and then $15 a year thereafter) and in return receives special member discounts, the right to vote on board elections and policy matters, and a return on investment in the form of dividends that are distributed (if there are profits) at the end of each fiscal year. Plus you can pre-order bulk items at a 20% discount, making your flour, oatmeal and lentils practically free!

    Want In?

    Berkeley Student Food Collective

    The Berkeley Student Food Collective keeping it real in Northern California. Photo by Jason Riedy on Flickr

    There are food co-ops all over the country just waiting for you to jump in and join the fun. To find a co-op near you, you can go to Co-op: Stronger Together, type in your zip code and voilá, a nice map with all of the co-ops in your area neatly marked. Store hours and websites are only a click away. If you want to go a little deeper into the whole cooperative scene, check out gocoop.com, for more background and info on all sorts of co-ops, food and otherwise.