Co-ops aren’t just for hippies

The ranks of “preppers” have grown to include some unexpected demographics. Interest is exploding in locally and sustainably produced food with decentralized supply chains. Natural and organic food sources, or the means to provide for yourself through homesteading, aren’t just for hippies anymore. People who might find themselves at odds over political views are finding common ground in a desire to make the world, or at least their corner of it, a better place.

Many communities have a fantastic resource often overlooked by some of these people, or brushed off as something it isn’t… necessarily. Food co-ops are, by definition, intended for everyone and operated for the benefit of those who utilize them. They may share best practices and negotiate group purchasing terms, but each store is independent and autonomous, not beholden to a large corporate parent. Since they tend to have a larger number of small, local vendors than typical supermarkets, you’re helping to reduce dependence on a single fragile supply chain.

Anyone can walk in and shop, but an optional, refundable equity payment makes you a part-owner of the business. The investment varies, but at my local co-op it’s $58– or $10 a year for 7 years. In other words, you can access all the benefits of ownership (owner discounts, special orders, voting in board elections, or even running to serve on the board yourself) for a whole year with a single payment of $10! That’s nothing compared to membership at most “club” stores where you don’t enjoy an ownership voice. And, if you don’t have a food cooperative in your town (even if you do, really) you can get together with like-minded folks and start one of your own.

Co-ops operate according to a long-standing set of cooperative principles, described here:

Voluntary, open ownership – all welcome without discrimination (social, political, religious, etc.)

Democratic owner control – one owner = one vote, so your voice is heard

Owner economic participation – owners provide the capital and share the benefits

Autonomy and independence – co-ops are autonomous self-help organizations

Education, training and information – providing educational opportunities & resources

Cooperation among cooperatives– co-ops help each other when possible 

Concern for the community – various programs and policies to help your neighbors 

If you’re picturing a band of flower children offering tofu burritos and wormy little apples (“That’s how you know they’re organic, man!”) in a dusty space smelling of patchouli and… something–  look again. With the passage of time, and the guiding touch of the market’s invisible hand, food co-ops have matured into something quite different. In cities and towns nearly everywhere you’ll find clean, professional storefronts sharing the overarching mission of putting customers first – because those customers are also the owners.

Walk into a modern co-op and you’ll likely find a clean, well-stocked grocery store with an emphasis on clean, natural foods. There will be locally produced eggs, dairy, and produce. Meats are mostly from locally raised, pastured animals. In addition to a variety of packaged groceries, staples and dried foods can be purchased in bulk. Many co-ops offer a good selection of DIY and homesteading solutions, including canning supplies, GMO-free seeds and other gardening needs, tools & supplies for making things yourself, books and even classes. The wellness area is likely a treasure trove of harder-to-find supplements, herbal remedies, bulk teas, fluoride-free toothpaste, natural soaps, and other alternative personal care items. If you’re looking for something that isn’t stocked, most co-ops are happy to special order it for you.

Check out your local cooperative food store even if – especially if – you thought it wasn’t for you. By taking your business there, you’re doing more to support local farmers and producers, and a more decentralized and resilient distribution network. By making a small investment in becoming an owner, you’ll have a voice in the governance of your store, and the manner in which it gives back to the community.