Cooperative grocery stores across the country are making efforts to integrate their cooperatives across race and class. How did they get into this work? What are they doing? What are they learning? And what are the benefits?
To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives... The future is an indefinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of that that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.—Howard Zinn
Food cooperatives have a special relationship with their owners and customers, but even the best relationships need to be continually nurtured and cultivated. In a rapidly changing marketplace, one in which skillful competitors can outstrip other grocers on price, convenience, and amenities, customer loyalty is king. And consumers these days are notoriously fickle. A generation ago, people shopped somewhere for life. Today, one-third of grocery store consumers have switched primary stores within the last five years.1
Eleven new food co-ops have opened since we reported last year, and as always, it’s a diverse group. The strong interest in food co-ops in New York City is reflected by two openings, and more are on the way. Larger startups in Durham, N.C. and Portland, Me., benefitted from the expertise of the National Co+op Grocers Development Cooperative. And on a small island off the coast of Seattle, the Orcas Co-op is showing how even a small, remote community can open a food co-op that exceeds expectations.
The Man. The Myth. The Grocer. The iconic Blues Brothers-ish image of Howard Bowers was fiercely evident during this year’s CCMA conference. It served as a reminder of the essence of cooperation—that joining together for a common purpose gets the job done. The Bowers Fund strengthens our sector by giving grants to support training and education for food co-op managers, staff, and boards. These grants are made possible because our sector collectively donates to the Fund.
Retail food co-ops have a vested interest in the continued success of organics. Many co-op leaders participated in the pioneering creation of the National Organic Program, and countless others have worked in their communities to build strong distribution systems that bring organic food to market. Decades of hard work later, the organic industry has become a viable alternative to conventional food systems, with more Americans than ever—nearly 80 percent of households—choosing to buy at least some organic food.
Cooperative Grocer Network (CGN) has always been about connection and engagement. Started in the late '90s, it has morphed with the times, attempting to keep pace with enormous changes in technology and communications. We’ve witnessed big changes in the food co-op landscape, too. Now entering an era of growth (new startups, multiple stores) and uncertainty (the new normal of an increasingly competitive environment), food co-ops engage though CGN to participate in organic sharing, creating the documentation of our evolving history.
The market outlook for cooperatives specializing in organic, fresh, and local is more challenging than at any time in the past few decades. Organic food sales overall continue to grow strongly at a double-digit pace after many prior years of solid growth—there’s been nothing else like it in the gigantic world of groceries.
How will food co-ops differentiate themselves? How will they become more inclusive?
These were key themes for nearly 400 cooperators and allies from across the U.S. and Canada at the 59th annual Consumer Cooperative Management Association (CCMA) conference in Boise, Idaho. Attendees discussed the elements of these questions from many angles, and the atmosphere combined camaraderie with worries over how co-ops will address a changed and much more competitive market.
Six years ago, the Up and Coming, Up and Running (UCUR) conference debuted with the goal of providing training and networking opportunities for startups and new co-ops in the region. This year a record 114 cooperators representing 41 co-ops participated in the conference. Attendees came from 19 states across the country to network, share ideas, and learn from the experts and each other. Attendees liked what the conference delivers—they liked it a lot.