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Food Co-Ops: A Recipe for Mutuality

Some of my fondest memories of living in the small mountain town of Hendersonville, NC, are of my weekly visits to our local food co-op. The Hendersonville Community Co-op (HCC) began in 1978 when 15 families got together to purchase healthy food at wholesale prices. From that humble beginning, a small storefront was eventually rented where everyone in the community was welcome to shop, and members benefitted from weekly discounts.

Over the 27 years that I lived there, the co-op board prudently built its savings as it planned for a new space down the road, which opened in 2016. As you can see from the image above, it is a lovely, modern building where it is a delight to shop. In addition to organic and healthy products, the store features a café with soup and salad bar, grab-and-go cold case items, freshly baked goods, and local dairy goods, coffee, and garden plants. They also offer regular cooking classes, as well as a cooking camp for kids in the summer.

The HCC and similar food co-ops offer a model for economic mutuality that is uniquely rewarding to the community in which it exists. This type of entity typically has these features worth noting:

  • It's owned by locals: membership is open to anyone in the community, and the board and rules are voted on by members. This arrangement gives members the opportunity for input and also for influencing the types of items that are purchased, as well as how the store is run.

  • It supports small-scale and ethical suppliers: an important part of better capitalism is being aware of how goods are produced. Local co-ops tend to focus not only on healthy food, but food that is also ethically sourced and raised. Certain items, such as coffee and poultry, can often have compromised means of production. Products that are third-party certified are much more likely to be ethically sourced, as are well-known local brands, and co-ops tend to have an abundance of these items.

  • It keeps profits local: a study by the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA) found that co-ops reinvest $0.38 back into the local community, compared with $0.24 on average from a commercial grocery store. The study also found that for every $1,000 invested, the co-op returned an average of $1,604, which was $239 more than a conventional store.

  • It increases food access and fair competition: co-ops provide an additional venue to purchase produce and other healthy food choices. Fair competition means, of course, more choices and better prices for the consumer.

  • It's committed to giving back to the community: food co-ops promote more activities than just shopping. Many of them offer classes that support healthy living, such as cooking, gardening, and even beekeeping. Co-ops also participate in fundraisers for other non-profits, such as the drive-thru dinner the HCC helped sponsor for Habitat for Humanity last year.

  • It raises awareness for legislation that promotes mutuality: calls to action go out to members of co-ops to support bills that benefit small and sustainable farms, as well as those that counter child labor and unsafe working conditions in the food industry.

  • It's accountable: the board and employees are part of the community in which they live. As with any local business, you are more likely to consider how your customers will feel about what you do when you have to live with them as well.

Though there are many benefits, there may be what some consider to be drawbacks of food co-ops. These stores may not have everything that you need for one-stop shopping; prices may be a bit higher because the quality of food is better and the suppliers are smaller; produce may be more seasonally based; and, the hours may not be as extensive. On balance, the growth and endurance of food co-ops suggests consumers see that the benefits warrant adding this type of outlet to their shopping routine. With their more unusual offerings, co-ops are also often more intriguing to visit than a typical grocery store, so a weekly outing to the co-op can prove to be a genuinely fun experience.

Ultimately, a food co-op is the "co-operation" of neighbors in pursuit of a basic need: healthy food. By coming together in this way, they are able to achieve this goal at a better price for everyone, support the small and sustainable farmers who produce that food, and provide jobs for employees who live in their community. That sounds like the ingredients for economic mutuality to me!

Is there a local food co-op in your community? If you know of one, consider becoming a member and helping support this vital local business and the small and local suppliers it features. If you are unaware of a co-op nearby, check out the Food Co-Op Finder, the National Co-Op Directory, or websites, where you should be able to locate a food co-op if one is in your area. Once you visit, you'll be sure to go back again.

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