By Christine Dutton | Photography courtesy of Steve Alves, Food for Change
My parents were of the meat-and-potatoes generation, but I took a different road. I laughed at my parents’ jokes about my sprouts and greens alongside the gallons of milk and margarine in the refrigerator. I saw the Genesee Co-op Natural Foodstore in Rochester as my one way to access healthy, organic foods that weren't available in supermarkets. At the co-op, I also discovered a vibrant community and warm connections.
Participation in the cooperative movement satisfies our natural desire to work together in an interdependent way. The movement is, at its heart, a grassroots effort to increase active participation in our local, regional, and national economies. The vision of a co-op is born of like-minded people coming together in a community space, often starting out in a co-op builder’s living room.
CO-OPERATIVES AROUND THE WORLD
According to the UN’s 2014 Global Census on Co-operatives, based on data from 145 countries representing all regions of the world:
- There are 2.6 million co-operatives with over 1 billion memberships and clients—though it is difficult to tell from the data whether this membership number contains discrete counts; it is likely that the 1 billion memberships include individuals who belong to more than one co-op
- 0.2% of the world’s population, 12.6 million employees, work in co-ops (this does not include data from China’s 982,400 agricultural cooperatives
- Across the world, one in every six people is a co-operative member or client
- Internationally, co-operatives generated $2.98 trillion in combined annual revenue. If it were a country, the combined global co-operative economy would fall between Germany and France as the fifth-largest economic unit
- At a national level the cooperative economy comprises over 10% of the Gross Domestic Product in four countries: New Zealand (20%), Netherlands (18%), France (18%), and Finland (14%).
In 2001, I heard about the efforts of community members to form a co-op, and I plunked down my $150 to gain member ownership (Owner #433). It was a long road for River Valley Co-op. Several sites were considered and the store didn’t open until 2008. River Valley Co-op and other co-ops in this most recent wave of development are quite different than those in the ’70s. Operating in a more sophisticated fashion, newer co-ops are full-line grocery stores carrying a wide range of products. After attending an annual meeting at the Northampton Senior Center, I was able to clearly see the impact our local co-op was having on the community. I decided that I would like to serve in a board leadership role and began board service in January 2012.
What Makes a Co-op
The agricultural industry has a long history of bringing together farmers and other producers to work cooperatively: from combining olive harvests to make olive oil to dairy farming that provides product for making cheese. Though the tradition of cooperation is deep-rooted, it takes more than working together to make a co-op.
A co-op, in the simplest sense, is a business or organization wherein the employees or members are also the owners and democratic decision makers. Co-ops can take many forms, exist in any industry, and provide virtually any product or service. There are also co-ops that exist to create marketing power for smaller individual business owners who combine their product for sale to another venture, including another co-op.
Many member-owner driven co-ops simply require a one-time financial contribution to receive benefits such as voting power at annual meetings, leadership opportunities such as board service, patronage rebates (a share of the profit), and sometimes discounts. Co-ops often support special payment programs that ensure that lower-income residents will have access to the services of the co-op and rights of membership.
Worker co-operatives are owned and controlled by the employees, who also receive a share of the profit. Often, there is an apprenticeship period before employees receive full cooperative benefits. Worker co-ops are often governed by elected employees who supervise the co-op general manager.
“If more people understood about co-ops,” says Jade Barker, River Valley Co-op board member and CDS Consulting Co-op consultant, “they would have the same passion I have for the cooperative movement. Cooperation is central to life.”
As a member of a co-op, I know that the profits of my efforts will be used to support my community, grow my co-op, and be shared proportionately among owners.
Co-operatives around the world are guided by the same seven principles:
- Voluntary and open membership
- Democratic member control
- Member economic participation
- Autonomy and independence
- Education, training and information
- Cooperation among cooperatives
- Concern for community
“The values that cooperatives have been promoting for decades have become largely mainstream and every major supermarket has been trying to do that,” says Rochelle Prunty, general manager of River Valley Co-op. “Cooperatives are the best option as there is nothing more local and authentic.”
Co-op History and Impact
In 1842, members of the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, among them Samuel Hill and George Benson, established a utopian community organized around a communally owned and operated silk mill. Those who were drawn to this community sought to challenge the prevailing social attitudes of their day by creating a society in which “the rights of all are equal without distinction of sex, color or condition, sect or religion.” They were especially united around the issue of the abolition of slavery. Most were followers of William Lloyd Garrison. Sojourner Truth was a member of the community and visitors like Frederick Douglass were regular lecturers. 
In his documentary Food For Change, filmmaker Steve Alves, a Pioneer Valley resident and Franklin Community Co-op member, examines the both the historical and present day impact of food co-ops as a vehicle for social and economic change.
“Food co-ops were a byproduct of the Great Depression,” says historian David Thompson, who is also featured in Food For Change. “The disparity in wealth between the haves and the don’t haves was the spark that ignited co-ops. As co-ops grew, they restored hope to millions of American who began to gain some economic control over their lives and their communities just as co-ops are doing today.”
The Depression-era first wave of co-op success was followed by another burgeoning period in the 1960s and ’70s described as the “new wave” of co-ops. A “third wave” of co-ops, of which many of our local co-ops, like River Valley, are a part, has been growing in the new millennium. As an owner in River Valley Co-op, I know that I am part of growing our agricultural community and local food movement. Many local farmers are members, as well as restaurant owners, food producers, and chefs.
Monte Belmonte, on-air radio personality at the River radio station in Northampton, says, “Apart from the experience of shopping at River Valley, I love what the co-op stands for: its support of local agriculture and its support of local makers in search of shelf space are to be commended.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
The National Co-operative Business Association CLUSA International
The International Co-Operative Alliance
You can learn more about food co-operatives and the successes of our other local food co-ops in the inspirational film Food for Change by Steve Alves.
Join us at The Academy of Music in Northampton at 6:30 on October 27 for a screening of Food for Change. Tickets $5 per person.
“River Valley Co-op truly celebrates the bounty of the Pioneer Valley and New England,” says Virginia Willis, celebrated Southern food expert and cookbook author who splits her time between the Pioneer Valley and Atlanta. “They carry such a wide array of products that it’s nearly like going to the farmers’ market! Walking into the stellar River Valley produce department literally brings a smile to my face.”
1 Historic Northampton. The Anti-Slavery Community. (August 14, 2016) Retrieved from http://www.historic-northampton.org/virtual_tours/Markers/Markerpanels/antislavery.html
2 Home Planet Pictures. (2011). New Film Food For Change Examines Food Co-op As Political & Economic Movement. (Press Release)