Cooperating in Response to Challenges

The Editor Notes

Cooperatives when at their best show resiliency by enhancing member services through diverse tactics and forms of collaboration. Food co-ops are innovating at home and also by sharing resources with other cooperatives. Several examples are highlighted here, but the wider cooperative world offers many more.

To be sure, change is often entered into by necessity and is not without difficulties. For most food co-ops there is no option to stay in place, given a grocery market that has larger competitors offering the better-quality and organic products that often have been the co-op’s specialty. 

This “new normal” market environment demands that co-ops develop excellent leadership both externally and internally, carefully manage evolving operations, and build a distinctive brand based on community trust and ownership. To use the tagline of this June’s annual conference (, these challenges suggest that we “cooperate to differentiate.” 

In Canada, the last North American cooperative distributor of organic and natural groceries faced parallel challenges. In March, Ontario Natural Food Co-op agreed to sell its business to Horizon Group, a private firm with co-op roots in British Columbia. (This follows the 2015 sale of Co-op Atlantic distribution after 90 years in the Maritimes—reported in CG #183.) Ontario food and farming co-ops are working to maintain cooperative development and a regional food system. 

Along with summaries of a closing chapter in eastern Canada, we feature Kootenay Co-op in British Columbia—an impressive new store and residential development in a small city. Ambitious financial requirements were met by co-op owners as well as by several credit unions. 

(U.S. credit unions are less often partners in co-op development but are allies nevertheless—presently campaigning to maintain the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, which serves low-income communities.)

By contrast with the smaller number of Canadian food co-ops, the U.S. sector is evolving in two different ways. Established food co-ops are increasingly challenged to maintain services and profitability within much more constrained sales trends. These co-ops operate over 200 stores and demonstrate that—along with deep community roots—strong next-level services are essential for food co-op survival. National Co+op Grocers (NCG) offers critical purchasing and training programs that support its co-op members and greatly strengthen the food co-op brand. Their latest report summarizes NCG’s successful trial of a loan fund for its member co-ops.

Despite the retail grocery market becoming more challenging, startup food co-ops continue to open. The larger market still isn’t meeting people’s dual hunger for both better food and better communities. After a decade, this startup wave is approaching 100 new food co-op stores, supported by professional guidance from Food Co-op Initiative (FCI) and other allies. This year’s Up & Coming startup conference, reported here, generated an expanded set of online resources.

How to differentiate the co-op store? Branding—or rebranding—is a strategic piece that both startup and mature co-ops need to consider. The startup Dorchester Food Co-op benefited from rebranding, with special support described by Jacqueline Hannah of FCI.

Established co-ops get considered advice in two other reports: James Morrell reviews how the all-important produce section can make the co-op stand out. Rebecca Torpie offers a fresh look at how the board and marketing department can work together in unified communications that reinforce the co-op brand.

Cooperative Grocer Network (CGN) also is embedding cooperation among cooperatives, and Ellen Michel highlights online resources that make its member co-ops stronger together. 

Atop all these efforts are two larger realities that need local stories. First, the nature and potential of cooperatives continues to be misunderstood or unrecognized by much of the public—ignorance that is reinforced by neglect of cooperative education in public institutions and public policy. Addressing social issues includes educating new and existing communities about cooperatives.

Second, our cooperative and democratic values compel us to address major global threats. Global warming disasters are here and are accelerating due to longstanding growth in heat and emissions; they will force us to adjust our food businesses and habits. I see this as inevitable—in any case, our values and principles prompt us to speak up and act up. The country’s reckless leaders make our responsibilities even greater.

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