It's time to stop driving past your neighborhood food co-op. While some people may prefer the ease of supermarkets and large companies, there are many benefits to joining a food co-op. Whether you're thinking of membership or you're just getting your feet wet, here's everything you need to know about these community grocery stores.
What is a Food Co-op?
When you hear the word "Co-op," what comes to mind first? A small place where community members come together and hold hands? Organic food?
There are a lot of misconceptions about food co-ops. According to the National Cooperative Business Association, "A co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise." (1)
In general, there are co-ops in all sectors of the economy and of various sizes. Co-op members purchase a share in the business (or are employees of it), and they own and make decisions for the business together. The goal is not necessarily to make a profit but to reflect the values of members.
There are certain principles that owners often use to structure a food co-op:
Some co-op businesses may set restrictions on who can join the directory of members such as a person's location of residence. There may also be an application process to join. But as a whole, membership is open to anyone, and board membership is open to a vote.
What are Food Co-ops Good For?
In addition to being community-owned, many co-op food stores have initiatives related to community development, enrichment, and education. For example, a store may host free cooking classes, sponsor something in the area, or support local nonprofits.
Most food co-ops also prioritize supporting local farmers and producers. They seek vendors with high-quality, organic goods, and these partnerships help small vendors and organizations. For that reason, a cooperative is great for shoppers who want to eat local produce or who follow special diets.
Examples of Food Cooperatives
The number of food cooperatives has risen in the United States since the 19th century. Although the exact numbers are hard to find, the National Cooperative Business Association Clusa International states that "Over 3 million Americans are members of almost 5,000 food co-ops." (2)
Regionally, food co-ops are more common in the northern states and are most frequented by people over 65 years old. (3) A shortlist of some US health food co-ops includes:
Shopping at a Food Co-op Grocery Store
You don't have to get a membership to shop at a food co-op. If there is one in your community, you can go in and buy things like at any other store. Still, there are advantages and disadvantages to using a coop for all of your groceries.
The list of benefits of shopping at a cooperative includes:
Fresh Fruits and Veggies
The first benefit is that you get access to fresh market products. Though every food cooperative is different, they usually have quality, seasonal produce that is sold at the peak of freshness. At a large grocery store, there are often lower standards for putting food on a shelf. You are more likely to find fruits and vegetables that are going bad still on display.
Another advantage is that buying food grown locally is good for the environment. Food that you find in supermarkets can travel from thousands of miles away to get to you, while many co-ops prefer to keep distribution within a radius of 400 miles.
Co-ops tend to be more socially responsible than major grocery store chains. They support local vendors at fair prices, they page living wages to employees, and they give back to their communities. Additionally, many food co-ops may only stock fair trade products.
Large scale producers often do the opposite by comparison. They may exploit and mistreat workers and disrupt communities for the sake of profit.
Depending on your shopping habits and values, you may experience the following drawbacks:
Price and Hours
Food co-ops tend to have higher prices than other grocery stores because of the benefits mentioned previously. These cooperative organizations have less buying power and fewer resources than major companies, and their focus on location and quality can lead to greater expenses.
A food cooperative may keep business hours that are shorter than the supermarket in your state. For instance, while Walmart or Kroger may be open 24 hours or until midnight, the neighborhood coops might close around 9 pm. This can be an issue for people who need to shop at odd hours or have a tight schedule to work around.
Depending on your location, you may struggle to get certain goods at different times of the year. Food co-ops that use local suppliers are restricted to seasonal offerings. For example, if you are looking for tomatoes and it's not tomato season, you may find a lacking selection. However, if you live in a warm area, you may not encounter this issue.
May Not Have All Products
Many people have become used to supermarkets being a one-stop-shop for everything you need for your house. For example, you may get groceries as well as bath products, kitchen utensils, and laundry supplies.
At your local food cooperative, you probably won't be able to get all of these items. If they do have a selection of personal items such as cleaners, toothpaste, and toilet paper, you likely won't be able to get them in bulk. For bulk foods for your house, you'll need to make a separate stop at another store.
Becoming a Member
The procedure for new cooperative members will vary between organizations. Some may allow you to fill out your paperwork upon your first visit and approve you right then and there. Others may have a longer process.
In general, you will fill out a form with your contact info (email address, name, etc.) and your method of payment.
Next, you will get a personal number and a packet of information that details the rules and operations of the cooperative. You may also get merchandise or other perks.
Most food co-ops allow a one-time sign-up for a lifetime membership. So, for what reasons would you want to join the directory of members?
Advantages for Members
Events and Platforms
If your grocery cooperative offers programming or workshops, you will likely have access to these resources for free or for a lower fee than non-members. Additionally, members of these organizations often get a platform to lead events and share their knowledge and skills with others. It's a great way to become involved and support your community.
Usually, you can decide how active you want to be in the organization. You can choose to only be a voter, to join a subcommittee meeting, or to run for a spot on the board.
As a board person, you can decide what the coop does and sells, what new partnerships you'd like to put in place, what programs for members should exist. Even as a shareholder of a supermarket company, you are unlikely to have this same kind of influence anywhere else.
Discounts and Deals
Many cooperative organizations reward their family with different kinds of perks. For example, you may get a certain percent off of every purchase, special deals on certain items, or refunds based on patronage. Depending on your involvement, you may soon see your membership investment return to you.
It's important to note that while food cooperative stores may see a profit, this profit often goes back into the cooperative. Some places will split dividends with owners, but you shouldn't expect to make a lot of money as a co-op partner.
Community and Networking
Lastly, you can expect to become a part of a community of people with similar values as you. People who are part of cooperative organizations often would like to see the fair treatment of workers and improvement in food systems.
Co-ops can also be part of larger economic networks. So, you may be able to get perks at other organizations within your cooperative support network.
As mentioned, there's no way to guarantee that you will see financial incentives or a return on your investment. When you invest in a large company, you may one day be able to sell your shares for more than you purchased them. With a co-op, the value of your share typically doesn't change, so you wouldn't get any profit from giving it up.
Additionally, not all cooperative organizations offer discounts and refunds to patrons. Instead, they may use the money to support their staff and expand their resources.
You may find yourself spending more money than you usually would on groceries as part of the coop directory. Even with a discount, the cost of foods at the cooperative can still be higher than your local supermarket. Though you do not have to shop at the co-op market just because you are a member, it's important to know that your support may not always equate to personal rewards.
Food co-ops are directly owned by their members and staff. Membership is often open to anyone, and all of the owners democratically operate the business. Many food co-ops focus on healthy food and using local vendors, and they form a relationship with their community.
Not always. A cooperative that focuses on locally-grown, organic, or specialty offerings may be more expensive than a major chain store. However, every cooperative is different, and the positive community relationship may be worth the extra cost.
There are several guides and resources for starting food co-ops. It is important to do your research first to find vendors, interest, and a business plan that will work for your area. Organizations such as the Food Co-op Initiative exist to provide resources for people who would like to start food co-ops.
With a food buying cooperative, family members may form a relationship with each other, vendors, and growers to order bulk foods at wholesale prices. Members of the cooperative may offer their time and skills in exchange for discounted-rate goods.
Food for Thought
If you are thinking of joining something like a food co-op, you want to ask yourself these questions: What are the advantages of the relationship? Do I agree with the cooperative's business model? How involved would I like to be?
Overall, food co-ops are a great way to help people in your area, and it's a perfect chance to form a relationship with like-minded individuals.
- What is a Co-op? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://nfca.coop/definition
- Food and Grocery Co-ops. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://ncbaclusa.coop/resources/co-op-sectors/food-and-grocery-co-ops/
- Young, Seth T. (2014). "The Geography of Food Cooperatives in the United States". International Journal of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities. 6 (2): 2. doi:10.7710/2168-0620.1025. ISSN 2168-0620.