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Growing the Co-operative Food System

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2013 April Issue Newsletter

By Alexandra Phillips

(Powerpoint to accompany presentation:

Growing the Co-operative Food System was presented by Erbin Crowell, the Executive Director of the NFCA (Neighboring Food Co-op Association). Erbin taught a refreshing class that started out with the basics: the benefits of co-operatives as democratic entities, their roots in values-based goals, and the placing of common good before that of profit gain. Erbin emphasized that we are struggling today with similar questions to those that were being asked during the Industrial Revolution. Can we trust our food sources? Will we be able to afford quality food?  Food security concerns and adulterated products were common during the Industrial Revolution and there was an urgent need for pure, affordable, and wholesome food.  In 1844, the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers, a group of weavers, unionists and community activists in England, started a member-owned store that was based on community values and product security. Just 10 years after the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers opened its doors, the British co-operative movement had grown to nearly 1,000 co-operatives. Not only that, but Rochdale Pioneers is still in existence in England. Over the years it has merged with other co-operatives and now operates under a different name, The Co-operative Group, with over 6 million members. 

The official definition of a co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet the current economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise. Co-operatives are values based organizations, grounded in self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, and solidarity. Co-ops exist for the common good and work to accomplish a shared goal. Any surplus, or profit, is distributed among members in proportion to their use of the business, or is reinvested in the business. Co-operatives are also 'user' focused; the people who use the co-op's services also own it, vote democratically, and benefit through patronage dividends and improved prices, services, and employment. 

There are currently one billion co-op members worldwide. Co-ops are resilient and continue to grow despite tough economic times and maintain their values. In fact, last year was Organic Valley's best year, amidst the financial struggles in the US. Erbin also touched on some of the decisions that co-ops make that other businesses would regard as "crazy." For example, co-op staff spend time and labor communicating with and ordering from 50+ farmers, process their deliveries, and keep track of what is coming from whom and how much of it they have. Co-op groceries do all this extra work because the focus is on delivering benefits to the community and managing the loyalty of customers and growers. Other co-ops have innovated through building the Fair Trade movement, changing the mainstream demand through leading with natural foods, and creating economic relationships that serve member needs. 

There are many different types of co-ops and they fill different needs. A few examples include community, consumer, producer, worker, and multi-stakeholder businesses. Co-ops can also be oriented to various activities such as purchasing, producing, processing, marketing, and providing employment. A basic co-op structure consists of members, a board of directors, management, staff, and consumers or producers. 

Erbin spoke of Bologna, Italy being the co-op capital of the world and explained that in Italy a co-operative cannot legally be sold or the assets will go back to the members. Many co-ops are difficult to buy out, which roots the businesses in the community and lessens the threat of being bought up by large corporations. Co-ops have a low business failure rate and are generally long lived with loyal member and customer followings. All of these benefits result in a more stable local food system, infrastructure, employment, services, and economy. 

Erbin went through some examples of NFCA member co-ops that are examples of long-standing and thriving community businesses. Some of these include Deep Root Organic Co-op, Equal Exchange, Valley Green Feast, Organic Valley, Pioneer Valley Growers Association, Arethusa Farm, and Green Mountain Spinnery. 

For those interested in starting up a new co-operative, Erbin presented some initial questions to consider. A new co-op can be launched or an existing business can be turned into a co-op.  Lists of questions, activities, timeline, and resources are useful to follow in order to ensure that all of the proper steps are taken. When operating a co-op, it is important to understand group dynamics, hold a shared vision, define roles and responsibilities early on, maintain professional standards, recognize strengths and weaknesses, and uphold a participatory, yet focused environment. 

There are many reasons to join, start, or convert to a co-operative model. For those who want to take these steps, there are many organizations willing to provide assistance and guidance with the process.

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