What’s Wrong with Food Co-ops?

Over the last few weeks, there have been a series of posts attacking consumer grocery cooperatives in Madison. The general complaint is that the staff are hippies and snobby towards “ordinary” people, the prices are too high, and they don’t sell meat. Recently, the new complaint was levelled that they shouldn’t advertise by leafletting neighborhoods.

Needless to say, most of the people complaining aren’t members of the co-operatives. The sad part is the inability to distinguish between being a “member” as Sam’s Club and owning a share of stock in a co-operative. It seems lost on some that the purpose of the co-operatives existence isn’t to maximize profit by placating the lowest common denominator of consumerism. I can understand why people may choose not to join a consumer co-op and why they might choose to not shop there. What I don’t understand is why they also feel the need to attack the co-operative that they haven’t joined and won’t patronize.

Then, I saw part  a PBS special on class in America called “People Like Us”, the film takes several stories of community interaction. The link is to a segment on Burlington, Vermont. The town was in search of a downtown grocery store and the local Onion River Co-operative was ready to make the move. Imagine a food co-operative being the principal neighborhood grocery store. The city became embroiled in an argument that broke along class lines. Much of the debate boiled down to class sneering (by both sides). When did the consumer cooperative movement in the United States became an extension of the upper class?

In the end, the Onion River Co-op did what any good co-op did. It practiced the values and principle of “concern for the community.” It made sure to stock what the community (not just the members) wanted: white bread at 99¢ a loaf and cheap chicken.

It is amazing though. In Canada, Co-op Atlantic , is a huge enterprise rivaling many of the US grocery chains. The difference is that they are co-operatives and connect the producer and consumer in the food chain economically. These aren’t high end organic and natural food stores, but they are cheap, commercial foods either.

Ultimately, it seems the US consumer cooperatives need to take stock of this division. How does Willy St. reach out to those who think $6.39 for 3 lbs of oranges is over-the-top? The cooperative movement in the United States is suffering from its own success. As one co-op members told me, 60 years ago almost all food sold for consumption was organic. 30 years ago, almost no organic products were available for purchase except through consumer cooperatives. Today, organic foods account for up to 10% of the foods sold. In that time, we have seen the effect of factory farming and chemical additives. Cancer rates , obesity, and adult onset diabetes are sky high. People are flcoking to organics in droves. Last summer, there was a milk shortage in the United States–but you wouldn’t have known that unless you drink organic milk. Organic farmers cannot keep up with demand and, sadly, that is also driving up the price of foods.

The cooperative movement started on December 21, 1844 in Rochdale, England with the promise of providing good foods at affordable prices. In the world outside the US, that is still the case. While the organic market makes its comeback, what will consumer co-operatives do to help people weather the storm? While the major operators slowly take over the niche of US co-operatives (whole foods, Wal-Mart and others are all moving into organic foods), what will consumer co-operatives do to maintian their viability?

Now, I am a member of Willy Street. I know a number of their staff. I know a about 1/3 of the board. I can tell you that they are a cracker-jack bunch. The food coops in the US are already working to deal with these issues. I will still offer my friendly supportive advice from here in a day or two. . . . but now I have to study!

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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