Building a Cooperative Base and Future

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These may actually be good circumstances for cooperatives. The country has entered a new era, marked by financial decline and much uncertainty, continuing wars, and accelerating environmental degradation. Despite distorted and dishonest reporting on the state of things, there is far too much unemployment and debt to expect a general recovery any time soon. Yet, stepping up in the face of need, cooperatives and communities are working to improve local services, address food security, and extend ­economic democracy.

Building local food economies
While much of the larger economy staggers and contracts, many co-op businesses and their c­ommunities are becoming stronger from a base of shared trust and support. Food co-ops large and small have pioneered in bringing better food to their communities and public while operating with integrity and transparency. For years, co-ops have helped grow organic as well as local producers, and the need for the kind of clean and local production that food cooperatives have nurtured and supplied is greater than ever.

Our many years of work building these retailer and grower relationships are bearing fruit. A heartening summary of co-op leadership in developing local food economies appears in this edition, written by Ken Meter. Meter’s studies, from Crossroads Research Center in Minneapolis, have deeply extended the knowledge and power of many ongoing campaigns to rebuild local food economies.

These necessary campaigns draw on the organizing and soil building of earlier cooperators and growers, and they provide a foundation for improved public and economic health in the future. Further capacity building is much needed—especially more growers!—and the need for local food supply will only increase. Even a very small co-op such as Common Ground, featured in these pages, can carve its niche and support its eventual expansion through dedication to local food.

Boards of directors also are wrestling with questions that evaluate their co-op’s mission and achievements. Thane Joyal’s review of several boards’ key questions shows that many are focused on these same issues of strengthening the local food economy and extending the co-op’s community.

Addressing food security and reduced income
Co-ops’ strong support for organics helps improve our soil and preserve other natural resources. Cooperatives also can help in an environment of reduced income and threats to food security. Food co-ops are challenged to retain the loyalty of owners and customers, an achievement that has been central to their success so far, and also to reach new participants through co-op services. Contributions in these pages from the East and West portray excellent co-op programs that encourage economical shopping and help bring low-income customers to the co-op. Julie Cross, from Davis Food Co-op, describes a breakthrough opportunity to convey messages about the co-op as a store that can provide good menus for low cost—and with a high component of local foods as well. Clem Nilan, from City Market in Burlington, reports on how that co-op made it easy and rewarding for low-income shoppers (WIC and food stamp recipients) to join—
a boost for the community and the co-op.

Extending economic democracy
Cooperatives also offer essential public examples of democracy. Mutual investment and rewards—sharing the wealth—are built into co-op principles and practices, and these elements have huge potential in difficult times. A brief item in this edition focuses on worker cooperatives and democratic workplaces. Michael Moore, in his new film and in a recent interview, highlights such co-op economics.

Examples of successful community-based cooperatives—credit unions and cooperative banks, consumer co-ops and worker co-ops—are out there, needing more recognition and support. Among food co-ops, as detailed in the previous edition, there are more startup efforts around the country than at any time since the 1970s. It’s up to these new groups and their allies in existing local and national cooperatives to expand our sector by cultivating a new ­generation of cooperative communities. ■

See other articles from this issue: #145 November - December - 2009