Food Co-op History

Past and present waves

Food co-ops in the U.S. have experienced periodic waves of development over many decades.  There is a current, post-2000 wave of new co-op formation, which is resulting in ten or more co-op storefronts opening each year (see wiki on “How to Start a Food Co-op").

Most of today’s food co-ops came from a large wave of co-ops launched in the late 1960s and 1970s, with surviving co-ops numbering about three hundred businesses. 

Earlier, there was a 1930s Depression-era wave of consumer co-ops, of which several remain in operation (such as Hanover Co-op; Swarthmore Co-op; Putney Food Co-op).  Additionally, in a few small cities, usually located in the northern tier of states, there are a few co-ops that were founded earlier in the 20th century.

Recent food co-op history

*Many individual food co-op histories, as well as significant regional and national developments, are reported in past and ongoing issues of Cooperative Grocer and can be located through a search of the archives: http://www.cooperativegrocer.coop/articles/by-topic.

*The National Cooperative Grocers Association was consolidated from nine regional food co-ops associations in 2004.  A report on this shift, “Local Co-ops Build National Presence,” by Dave Gutknecht, appeared in Cooperative Grocer: http://www.cooperativegrocer.coop/articles/2004-06-08/local-co-ops-build-national-presence.

*”Food Co-ops and the Road to Organic Valley,” by Dave Gutknecht, was written for Organic Valley in 2008 and covers the history of how food co-ops strongly supported development of the largest organic farmer co-op in the U.S.: Part 1: http://www.cooperativegrocer.coop/articles/2010-09-07/food-co-ops-and-road-organic-valley.  Part 2: http://www.cooperativegrocer.coop/articles/2010-11-20/food-co-ops-and-road-organic-valley-part-2.  Part 3, “Prospects in Hard Times,” suggests possibilities for diverse cooperative development in an environment of economic difficulty: http://www.cooperativegrocer.coop/articles/2010-11-20/cooperative-prospects-hard-times.

*The parallel decline and forced sale in 1988 of the natural/organic consumer food co-op distributor with the most retail co-op owners, based in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and the largest food co-op of the previous generation, Berkeley Co-op, is covered in a 2-part article by Dave Gutknecht in Cooperative Grocer:  Part 1, “Development Directions”: http://www.cooperativegrocer.coop/articles/2004-01-09/development-directions.   Part 2, “Turning Points and Lessons”: http://www.cooperativegrocer.coop/articles/2009-01-31/development-directions.

*”Berkeley: Lessons for Co-op Leaders,” by Karen Zimbelman, is a review of the 1991 book, ”What Happened to the Berkeley Co-op? A Collection of Opinions”: http://www.cooperativegrocer.coop/articles/2004-01-09/berkeley-lessons-co-op-leaders.

*Storefront Revolution: Food Co-ops and the Counterculture, by Craig Cox, is a 1994 paperback book written by an observer based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Earlier co-op histories

“Weavers of Dreams,” by David Thompson (revised 2012), is a paperback book that presents the story of the Rochdale Co-op Pioneers who in 1844 established the cooperative principles that guided the development of the modern cooperative movement. For information on obtaining the new edition of “Weavers of Dreams,” contact the author:  [email protected].  Thompson summarized the story in a Cooperative Grocer article, “Co-op Principles Then and Now”: http://www.cooperativegrocer.coop/articles/2004-01-09/co-op-principles-then-and-now-part-2

*”For All the People,” by John Curl (2009) is a book covering the labor movement and cooperative endeavors that were launched in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.  Curl’s book was reviewed by Stuart Reid in Cooperative Grocer: http://www.cooperativegrocer.coop/articles/2009-12-31/uncovering-history-cooperatives-labor-and-communities.

*”Consumer Cooperation: The Heritage and the Dream,” by Emil Sekerak and Art Danforth, first published in 1974, presents the stories of leading consumer co-ops in the U.S. and Canada from the 19th century onward.

*”The Greenbelt Cooperative: Success and Decline,” by Donald Cooper and Paul Mohn, published in 1992, presents the story of a leading Mid-Atlantic consumer co-op founded in the 1930s that ended its food operations in 1983.

*”California’s Uncommon Markets,” by Robert Neptune, published in 1977, covers the 1935-1976 period of what were some of the largest consumer co-ops in the U.S., especially in the Bay Area.

*There are numerous other books on previous generations of consumer co-ops in the U.S.