Today’s successful food co-ops are by and large located in more affluent neighborhoods—with shoppers who are typically college-educated and white. But what if you want to open a co-op in your low-income neighborhood? What if your neighborhood is primarily African-American? Latino? Any new venture, no matter where it’s located, will need to engage in planning, financing, marketing and attracting talent. Yet new and established food co-ops expanding into economically and/or racially-diverse neighborhoods will need to consider growth factors beyond what’s historically been the “typical” food co-op consumer. As more cooperatives commit to greater inclusivity of their customer base, focusing on the following dynamics can contribute to their successful co-op development.
Your organization must commit to being inclusive. The co-op’s leadership has to make inclusiveness a strategic priority and invest in the necessary ongoing support, education and training for people at all levels of the organization. It’s absolutely essential. Each co-op should have a person coordinating the work and holding the organization accountable to its goals. Without that, the initiative will stall. Non-traditional consumers may have developed a negative impression of food co-ops based on past experiences. You need to actively demonstrate that your co-op is welcoming to all.
Invite and welcome the community. No matter what your market study reveals about a potential co-op location, an unresponsive store is bound to fail. Have essential conversations with all kinds of people in the community, from residents to organizational partners, about how the co-op can best be of service. Include their feedback in your decision-making process.
Use grassroots organizing techniques. Door knock, visit people in their homes, hold listening sessions and town hall meetings, go to local groups and churches. Say hello. Make it clear to all that the co-op is putting out the welcome mat.
Minimize jargon. The terminology of the food industry can be confusing. Work to make co-op and food education programs non-judgmental. Offer choices, accessibility and fun.
Offer product mix based on community wants and needs. Recognize that people define healthy eating for themselves in many ways. Approach product selection with community input, and work to provide good, fair prices to both lure and benefit a range of customers.
Hire for diversity. Reflecting the diversity of the neighborhood is important to ensure local customers feel comfortable shopping at the co-op. Expand your networks to insure that you are hiring the very best talent available. Strong organizational values and vision have to be in place, prioritizing diversity in management roles. Be proactive about training and job skills that empower people to become managers and leaders.
Get creative about financing. Actively consider nontraditional community partnerships and development financing through owners, credit unions and nonprofits. Most communities have more assets than people realize, so don’t automatically equate income or a particular racial demographic with poverty.
Reaffirm the Co-op Principles and Values. A co-op could be missing out on fulfilling its co-op values if it only focuses on a narrow and affluent demographic. Fairness, equity and equality are important to a wide range of co-op owners and customers whose patronage could have strong economic and social impacts.
- Jamila Medley, executive director, Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance
- Stuart Reid, executive director, Food Co-op Initiative
- Leila Wolfrum, general manager, Durham Co-op Market
- LaDonna Sanders Redmond, diversity and community engagement manager, Seward Community Co-op