A Co-op Needs Its Community to Succeed

Sarah HarpsterIn the first few months of serving on the Board of Directors for the Co-op, it has really been sinking in for me that being involved in a Co-op means much more than sharing the ownership of a grocery store with a bunch of my neighbors. Modern Co-ops come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from grocery stores to farms, to worker-owned factories, and they have been popping up all over the world for 170 years. What makes the movement special is that Co-op values put people, and the good of the community over the long term, at the very core of the way they do business.

When I joined the Co-op Board, I was motivated to get involved because I really love good food and I felt like this is a great place to support a vibrant local food system in my community. I have learned a lot about Co-ops in the last few months because our Co-op Board is very proactive about making sure that all new Board members are made to feel welcome, and then thoroughly trained on how Co-ops work. Between Board meetings, our Annual Retreat, and the Co-op Board 101 training that I attended with Board members from dozens of other Coops across the Northeast, I am finally starting to “get” what is so powerful about the Co-op model.

In contrast to “business as usual,” cooperative enterprises are set up to serve the needs of the direct members as well as the greater community. Most businesses in the world today are actually mandated to make their decisions based primarily on what will bring the highest profit to the shareholders. Some new business models are emerging, such as B Corporations, which balance considerations for people (employees, communities, etc), the planet, and profit in their decision-making processes.

Co-ops, which got started in England as an answer to an industrial boom that was devastating families and communities, share a common set of values including self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, solidarity, openness, honesty, social responsibility, and caring for others. Not only are decision-makers directed to consider the impacts of their decisions on members and communities, they are also guided to the qualities of character that they should use and encourage in the decisions and operations of their enterprise. These values are put into action through seven cooperative principles: voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training, and information; cooperation among cooperatives; and concern for community.

All of this can seem very nice and also pretty theoretical. But people can exercise democracy within Co-ops in a way that is much more direct and effective than in most of the rest of our everyday lives. Sometimes Co-ops are messy, but members have a stake in hashing out their different understandings of what the enterprise ought to be, and working together to make their Co-op thrive. The healthy, thriving Co-op has positive ripple effects reaching individual members as well as the community at large. It supports local farmers and producers, provides good jobs in the community, and assists other cooperative ventures that in turn benefit other communities.

Of course, the strength of any Co-op depends on how much people invest in it. When I use the word “invest,” of course I am talking about making the initial investment in a Co-op membership, and I also mean shopping at the Co-op. Just as importantly, though, a Co-op needs its community to be invested in making sure that it really lives its values and principles. A Co-op is a democracy, and it thrives when its members and the wider community invest their time and energy, share their opinions, express their needs, and spend some time helping to carry out programs that are important to them.

Food writer Michael Pollen likes to point out that every dollar we spend on food is a vote for the kind of food system we want to have. I have always believed that this is true, but now I am beginning to sense just how important this is. Not everyone has much choice about how to spend their food dollars. With one in six Americans uncertain about how to afford their next meal, many of us have to choose the cheapest source of calories around (although even with these constraints, food dollars can be stretched by loading up on simple things like dried legumes and whole grains and taking advantage of the Healthy Food for All program at the Co-op). For those of us who have a wider range of choices, the small investment we make in supporting our Co-op and our local producers not only pays off in healthier, higher quality, and more delicious food, but it builds a stronger community for ourselves and future generations in which to live.