Opening a New Food Co-Op

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An enthusiastic group of people in our community have been working for the past couple of years to get a food co-op started. Although there are over 1,000 people who have shown their support by purchasing $100.00 memberships, opening the store is still a ways off. This is partly due to the complicated and expensive process of funding any sort of start-up business. There are, however, some hurdles unique to starting a co-op that have contributed to slower than anticipated progress. We joined over a year ago and remain optimistic that the doors to a viable and much needed community store will eventually open.

My involvement, beyond just being a member, has been limited to volunteering at several functions, helping to clean out one potential storefront, and attending meetings to contribute ideas and opinion. There are several very dedicated people who recently took over the lead in the effort to get the store opened. The original group of founders was very committed to the getting a co-op opened, but the new group brings some much needed business and start up skills to the effort.

Why is this on my mind today? Well, yesterday someone asked me if I thought that, because of the overall higher cost of the food and other products health-food and co-op stores sell, the opening of out local co-op might be in jeopardy. They had just read an article describing how the number of young people dipping into retirement savings to pay for food and shelter had doubled in the past year. Their thought was that the “worsening” economy in the U.S. will hurt the specialty retailers and benefit stores like Wal-Mart.

I did not have a definitive answer to their question, but my gut tells me that this will not be one of the more difficult hurdles to clear in order to make our co-op successful. What do you readers think? Am I biased because of my fervent belief that healthy, organic, and ethically produced goods are not “specialty” items, but the way products should be produced in the first place? Am I Pollyannaish in my view of what many consumers want?

There is a very successful community food co-op in a neighboring city. However, that city is a bit different than most in that it is a progressive, fairly affluent town. Do you think a progressive and affluent clientele is necessary for the success of a food co-op? I don’t. It is an unfortunate fact that organic, sustainably produced food and ethically produced and marketed goods in general, are more expensive. The people and families that shop for these products have made the choice to spend a bit more to feel safer and more responsible in their buying choices. I do believe that any food co-op that wants to be successful must pursue price as well as quality when buying and reselling goods. One of the most exciting things I think a local food co-op has the chance to do is educate and promote the idea of ethically produced food.

I have written about ethical food here, on other web sites, and in print publications. I am a big believer in our ability to bring some change to the food and diets of people. Although I understand some of the reasons contributing to the higher cost of ethical food, I also have some unconventional ideas that lead me to believe the cost differential is significantly wider than it should be. I have struggled to write succinctly about the topic, starting several articles and then abandoning them. It is easy to get carried away in the criticism of our modern food production industry, and sometimes difficult to be honest in critiquing the things that need to change in the ethical food market. I promise to spend more time writing on this topic, if for no other reason than to help myself feel that my ideas and opinions on this subject are as well thought through as they possibly can be.

For today, however, I leave you with the questions I posed above and these few more. Do you try to make ethically produced food part of your diet? Do you go beyond organic and humane food to try and purchase other commodities in an ethical fashion? Do you have a community health food store or food co-op in your community and if you do have one, do you shop there regularly? If you do have one, would you describe your town as affluent and progressive or representative of places like our own middle income, working class, community? Do you have any thoughts, ideas or questions on the subject that I am missing here? Please feel free to voice your experience and opinions.

I just installed a WordPress plugin that allows me to embed polls into the site. If you answer the poll question at the bottom of this post, I would be grateful. And, if you see any errors or problems when recoding your vote, please comment or use the contact button above to let me know. Thanks!

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Poll:

Do you now, or have you ever shopped at a food co-op?

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Will Sig
1 A. Caleb Hartley

I commend you for being involved in starting up a local food co-op! I’ve been to a few (a HUGE one in the Atlanta area was amazing) and most of them have been in more affluent areas, but I don’t think that it is absolutely necessary.

I think if it is marketed right, that it might be become a draw for people outside of the immediate area, which will help keep it afloat. I know that many people in my neighborhood have asked for a co-op or something of the sort to be created here – and we live in one of the more “run-down’ areas of the city!

Good luck – keep us advised on how it goes!

Namaste,
A. Caleb Hartley
http://www.environmentastic.com

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2 Will

Thanks Caleb! Hopefully this post will get some publicity and circulation and draw some comments from people who either shop at a co-op in their town or maybe even from others who have been involved in starting one.

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3 Bob

Hi Will, I never thought of Co-ops, healthy, organic,humane food at all before I met you and your site , thank you for raising my awareness, one thing I’ve noticed, the people I know that are aware of these things are well read, educated generally making above average incomes and are willing to spend the extra money for the long term benefits. Education is the key , like I said before this site I was happy with Superstore, now in some cases Im not so sure.

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4 Will

Yes Bob, isn’t it frustrating that usually, (but not always), the food that costs the least is the least healthy for you?

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5 A. Caleb Hartley

Which also means that the “poor” foor also unevenly impacts the “poor” and/or uneducated in society.

Sad – hopefully your blog and coop will help educate more and more people, Will!

Namaste,
A. Caleb Hartley
http://www.environmentastic.com

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6 Trudy

I would like to know where is the Opening of that new Co-op which I just read! Would like to join them If I could.
Thank you

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7 Will

Trudy – It is physically located in Southern Oregon. Memberships are open to anyone and are lifetime memberships. You can contact me directly if you like by clicking on the “Contact” tab at the top right of this page and filling in the form.

-Will

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8 Will

Caleb, that is pretty much true. We need to close the gap in price a bit between good food and “bad” food. It is not a 100% thing, though. There are many good, healthy foods that are not expensive, just like there is a lot of overpriced pre-packaged garbage for sale.

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9 Alan

I think it’s really a question of IF the co-op can purchase directly from small local sources and offer prices that are not only competitive but are a real Value. When I lived for a time in Cambridge MA I was 2 blocks from a co-op store and their prices were about HALF what the upmarket organic supermarket across the street charged on local produce and staples like beans, rice, etc. It did not have the breadth and depth of selection of the upmarket place but it was quite competitive with the traditional supermarkets in town on the items it carried. The store was not limited to members but members received some discount and thus attracted Lots of shoppers and was able to do the Volume needed to be able to afford the fixed costs of running a grocery store.

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10 Will

Thanks Alan! Good points, all.

I think another important factor in a co-op’s success is for them to have helpful as many friendly, intelligent people on staff as possible that want to work there and really believe in the co-op principles and healthy, safe food in general.

I really believe, having shopped at a successful co-op about 10 miles from here that the number one reason they are successful is the management and staff they have. Yes they have many affluent and educated customers, but those types of customers can be high maintenance because they expect the store management and staff to be enthusiastic and helpful. If the co-op does not hold up that end of the deal, customers these days really do sometimes have other shopping options.

-Will

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11 Will

I have added a poll to the post! It would be great if everyone who has already commented could go up and click an answer. Thanks! 🙂

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12 Anna

I think Will you know my answer. I am all up to it, however, I don’t practice all the time, as we don’t have full access. However, I do it whenever I can. Our superstores are working harder and harder on these ideas, and we have few stores like that that started very slow few years ago and now they are booming, but the boom became I think a greed, because they sometimes sell stuff that is just no believable at all. BTW I voted, I shop but we don’t have memberships, and I digg this story for you too. Thanks for sharing this story, and reminder as always. Anna 🙂 Oh and I still really think that the organic food should be much cheaper, it is much simpler food to eat. But then I understand the costs associated with timing and also loss of crops. I just remember those old days, when my parents grew everything themselves, and costed them almost nothing, and they were still able to sell extra. And we never had anything for spraying for bugs, I guess extra protein never really was harmful for us, lol.

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13 Will

Thanks as always Anna! I guess the protein is OK, but I still was my produce well!

Glad the poll worked for you. I see your vote fine. If you click on the “View Results” button, does it show you the totals?

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14 Anna

Thanks Will, I just came back to look, yes the results are showing good – I like voting. Anna 🙂

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15 Alice Radio

the question is have you started this store or not?

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16 Will

No Alice, it is not open yet. The first effort fell through because of some difficulties encountered by the original Board of Directors. Getting bank financing in the environment of 2008 proved to be impossible also. A new BOD and volunteers are working to raise the money needed to get this off the ground. Progress is very slow and it is hard to be real optimistic in this economy. The frustrating thing is that everyone seems to agree that once the doors are open, business will be good. But getting to the opening of doors point is immensely difficult.

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