Farms Finest: Co-ops enter mainstream America
Ryan Summerlin November 3, 2013
For grocery shopping, co-ops have been considered a “fringe” choice by some. With increasing prices and desire for local, healthy food, these stores are slowly easing their way into mainstream America. Watch closely as the tide recedes on industrial food demand, exposing new soil for co-ops to stand on.
I remember, as a kid growing up, the Putney, Vt., “hippies” and their sometimes eye-opening farm communes. It was during the late ’60s, when the urge for experimentation was strong and self-expression was fully endorsed.
Most of these free-spirited souls had chosen to leave city life and were intently building their own new community. By stocking healthy shopping options, the local food co-op there was supported actively. Their organic values were promoted alongside locally produced food and provided thrifty methods to save money on necessities.
This was certainly not where the “rest of us” would shop. Instead, the old-timer locals supported chain stores and the closest village market. It amazes me that more folks did not see the practicality in this business model and adopt it. It is no surprise to me that this Vermont co-op runs stronger than ever today. Those “typical” stores nearby (A&P, First National and I.G.A.) were the ones to close their doors when economic times turned downward.
Most people are aware that consuming industrial food has resulted in poor health consequences. The effects on communities are less obvious but nearly as damaging. Outsourcing sources products in exchange for money that leaves on a one-way street out of town, ending a direct exchange of local dollars. Often product orders are made by national marketing decisions and not by the community they are sold in.
In contrast, co-ops bring communities together by featuring products from the local farmer, rancher and artisan. Shelves are stocked with items that are vetted for health value, and the community generates the product selection. Corporate approvals are nonexistent because this is a system that operates for the people and by the people.
The Carbondale Co-op is conveniently situated on Main Street and resembles an old-time country store. Entering, you will not hear fake rainstorms sprinkling the produce or experience the artificial bakery aromas. Instead there is fresh produce and eggs with handmade signs stating what farm they came from. There are national brand names stocked beside local items, but all are there because of customer demand — not big-business marketing.
Unless you must have 30 choices for cereal or dish soap, this charming store can fill a shopping cart as well as any commercial grocery store. Generous member discounts are available, and bulk ordering offers up substantial savings for anyone. Member or not, this co-op has open doors to all shoppers.
There are many types of cooperative business methods, and history shows that farmers and ranchers have formed these entities often for purchasing agriculture materials.
In fact, co-ops have been around since 1843, when a group of flannel weavers in Rochdale, England, pooled their resources creating a new way of doing business. Although this was not the first co-op, it is the one that endured over time and developed the foundational principles for cooperative business operations.
In the United States, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that co-ops gained enough recognition to become established here as a viable business form. A second surge of American food cooperatives began in the late 1960s, and these were born out of the ideas and philosophies of that counterculture. These were the pioneers for advocating health awareness and forming the hugely successful industry we now know as “natural foods.”
The Putney Food Co-op mentioned above happens to be one of the oldest in the country, founded in 1941. Seventy-two years of community support is quite a record for any business. With natural foods being mainstream and having so many health-minded people today, the Carbondale Co-op is looking forward to creating a long history, as well. Visit this local business, and see what a community cooperative food store offers. There is something that just feels right when you know your dollars will be staying in town. For more information, visit www.carbondalecommunityfood coop.org.
Joni Keefe moved to the Roaring Fork Valley after a career in landscape design. She is passionate about local food and agriculture. For more information, her website is Farmsfinest.com, or follow her on Twitter. Connect at joni@farms finest.com.