By Josh O’Connor
Ocean Spray, REI, Land O’ Lakes, Southern States, ACE Hardware and State Employees Credit Union are all brands organized under a cooperative business model. At its core, a cooperative (or co-op) unites a voluntary association of members to satisfy a shared need.
Food co-ops often place even greater emphasis on independence and serving their members. As a product of 1970s counter-culture, food co-ops emerged as a reaction to the industrialization of food and a lack of natural and healthy choices. They were the first to integrate members into their organizational structure rather than simply equating spending choices to consumer “votes.”
Many co-ops, including WNC’s own Hendersonville Food Co-op (HFC) and French Broad Food Co-Op (FBFC), started as “buying clubs” formed by like-minded community members looking to utilize collective buying power to gain food sovereignty and capture the value of buying in bulk. Some 40 years later, the sense of community and political agency remains relevant even as concepts like “local,” “organic” and “natural” have entered mainstream consciousness.
“If you were to research co-ops across the country, you would find that anything that mainstream grocers are doing that’s perceived as really local or edgy is actually something co-ops were doing out of a sense of necessity 25 years ago,” says HFC community outreach coordinator Gretchen Schott Cummins.
Co-ops often operate in a dynamic and precarious position. Rather than viewing their business as an exchange of goods for money, they work to meet the needs of their owners while simultaneously solving local challenges. Co-ops work toward a sustainable approach that balances the social, economic and environmental needs of the community. This requires a level of awareness and connectedness driven by collective ownership.
“The co-op offers the community a chance to be involved in how their local grocer runs and works,” says Clare Schwartz, outreach coordinator for FBFC. She lists the absence of tobacco products and the offering of local meat products as specific examples of the democracy embedded in owner policy governance.
While many co-ops have opened their doors to anyone in the community, they also offer an opportunity to become an “owner” through nominal annual fees. At HFC and FBFC, owners pay $25 annually and determine the direction of the co-op through the election of a board of directors and various owner referendums. Owners are also entitled to additional discounts and patronage refunds based on their purchases and the co-op’s annual earnings.
Local and Sustainable
Supporting the local economy and creating new opportunities for entrepreneurs are values and priorities central to co-ops. “The core of co-ops is really reaching out to local producers and helping them succeed, grow and thrive, and that, in turn, keeps money within the local community,” says Schwartz. “We’re happy to work with producers on an individual level and skip over the packaging and labeling demands of larger chains.”
Beyond wanting access to transparently produced food supportive of natural health, coop shoppers are driven by their desire to create a functional local economy. “Co-ops, by their very nature, are locally focused,” says Schott Cummins. “People who are economically aware are going to discover that keeping money close to home ultimately serves them best.”
While steeped in localism, co-ops have also worked to overcome perceptions of high prices by collaborating to create supply channels that allow them to offer standard grocery staples at competitive pricing. The grocery business is a remarkably competitive environment with profit margins hovering around 1-2 percent nationally. As mainstream grocers assimilate the concepts that spawned co-ops, co-op survival requires responsiveness to their memberships and a product selection that allows them to remain viable through the unique value they offer customers.
Fortunately, local support of co-ops enables a momentum for enhanced focus on local foods. HFC recently expanded to a new 8,000-square-foot store from its previous 3,000-square-foot home. The French Broad Co-Op, a staple of downtown Asheville, is bursting at the seams and eyeing an expansion that includes a new store space and redevelopment of the block on which it sits.
Josh O’Connor is an Asheville-based freelance writer who serves on the board of the French Broad Food Co-Op.