When many of the new-wave food cooperatives were founded in the ’60s and ’70s, the times could easily be described as the heyday of new food co-op development. Got an unused storefront somewhere and a couple of spare coolers? Throw in a legion of willing volunteers ready to schlep and stock and do whatever. Back then, those were the necessary ingredients for a food co-op.
Fast forward to the present. The heyday ended; a lot of those co-ops didn’t make it. New food co-op development seemed to come to a grinding halt. Many established and operationally successful food co-ops were able to expand or grow locations in the face of increasing competition and consumer demand for sophisticated shopping experiences. But brand new food co-op developments have been few and far between. In recent years there’s been a renaissance of startup projects like Harvest Market in Barneveld, Wis., Eastside Food Co-op in Minneapolis, and Just Food in Northfield, Minn.
“ Successful development costs money,” said CDS consultant Marilyn Scholl. “Being able to roll up your sleeves is no longer enough to have a co-op. If a community wants a store, they have to invest in it themselves and raise outside capital. Other co-ops, development agencies and banks can help to leverage the costs.” As these startups work to meet the challenges of bringing cooperation to their communities, CDS has been expanding its vision of how new food co-op development can occur more quickly and easily for communities around the country.
CDS has begun a process of investigating the issues of new food co-op development and plans to work collaboratively within the sector to put forward solutions for how to address them. So far, the first phase of research for this project has been funded through grants from Mutual Service Insurance (MSI) and Cooperative Development Foundation (CDF) as well as through
CDS operating funds.
CDS development specialist Denise Chevalier has been spearheading the research project. She explained the impetus for the project and CDS’ desire to be a resource to the process. “We want to help initiate a broader vision for food co-op development, to build upon collaborative partnerships, and increase the infrastructure of support for new food co-op development.” There are many aspects to that support: linking groups to resources like finance and systems development, as well as providing organizational support in management and board development.
CDS was invited to participate in National Cooperative Bank (NCB) forum this September, and CDS presented its perspective on how to move forward on new food co-op development. “We’re very supportive of their efforts…and quite excited about it,” said Chuck Snyder, president and CEO of NCB. He sees the merging of vision and infrastructure as the key to successful new food co-op development. “NCB is looking to lend more to the food sector if we can tap into a common vision and infrastructure. We’ll be in a better position to increase support and lending to the food co-op sector.”
Scholl noted many food co-op leaders have also expressed the desire to expand food co-op market share through visionary collaboration with a variety of stakeholders—the recent reorganization of the National Cooperative Grocers Association being one big step toward that goal. “We’re responding to a need for new food co-op development and taking a broad view of things,” said Scholl. This view includes not only new natural food co-op development, but conventional and blended formats in both urban and rural locations.
“ Co-ops are driven by consumer needs and demands, and CDSwants to build an infrastructure for co-ops to be viable throughout the food sector,” said Chevalier. To do this requires a mobilization of vision, systems, capital and talent—and CDS is prepared to take a role in bringing groups and resources together to realize these objectives. “Ultimately this is a vision to strengthen local communities. Co-ops raise awareness that self-determination is an option,” Scholl added.
Looking back to the “heyday” to see what worked—the power of a community coming together—is the ineffable quality of cooperation. The idea that development opportunities are in “unused storefronts somewhere” is still very viable in some communities—it just needs to happen more efficiently and effectively. Rural communities are losing grocery stores to a lack of succession for the “ma and pa” grocery stores. Many inner city neighborhoods have lost food stores during the migration of businesses to suburban and strip mall settings. The loss of full-line grocery stores presents a challenge for a growing number of people in a variety of communities to access fresh and healthful food.
Two recent conventional grocery co-op developments, Root River Market in Houston, Minn. and Harvest Market in Barneveld, Wisc., are textbook cases of what could happen when a community loses its local grocery. Both towns lost their local grocery store, and residents were forced to make 16 mile or more commutes to the nearest grocery store. Private individuals and chain operations are reluctant to be in those markets. Community ownership appears to be a solution to keeping communities vital. Kevin Edberg, executive director of CDS, said, “We developed a hypothesis that communities losing grocery stores is not an isolated phenomenon and believe the co-op model might be a solution for those communities.”
Existing co-ops also play an important role in providing the proof that a community is stronger by having a co-op in it. Scholl said, “Current food co-op leaders provide tangible evidence that the dream is possible.” She noted that besides being able to offer valuable technical insights, on-the-ground retail cooperators are able to “share the vision and their success in an inspirational way” with others. Scholl said, “We want to develop our capacity to hook people up with the right resources at the right time.”