We’ve noticed several news stories featuring communities starting local food cooperatives to take care of neighborhood grocery needs. In just the last two months alone, we have heard that citizens of Cincinnati, Ohio, are organizing to open Apple Street Market, the only bus-accessible grocery store on the city’s northwest side; and that residents in low-income northeast Greensboro, North Carolina, have also come together to open Renaissance Community Cooperative this year. “There’s been a lot of efforts all over the country in terms of trying to bring in new grocery stores or converting corner stores to increase access to healthy food,” said Alex Ortega, a professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. In many cases, neighborhoods that need accessible grocery stores are not attractive or sustainable for corporate grocers. Maybe the neighborhood doesn’t have a main road or highway accessible to a variety ofcommuters and customers. Maybe other grocers have located there and were not profitable. Or maybe grocers located there with products and services that the neighborhood didn’t really want or could afford. Or perhaps the grocer that locates there chooses not to hire the people who live there to operate the store, making it hard to get the jobs necessary to afford to shop at the store. And some smaller communities have a family-owned business which meets their community food needs, then that store closes with changes in the family from one generation to the next. These kinds of concerns and issues are exactly what cooperatives are designed to address: meeting a local need by pooling community resources, making decisions together, and developing our own economic future.
Of course, when there are trends like this around the country, it’s natural to see the same trends in our own locale. Here’s a round-up of some start-up and growing food cooperatives in our area.
Goodside Grocery Co-op
Honey Creek Market Cooperative
Occasionally, small grocery stores that are already in business convert to food co-ops once the owner decides to move on to other pursuits. Sometimes, as was the case for Yahara River Grocery Cooperative in Stoughton back in 2006, the store closes and then the decision to resolve the need cooperatively unfolds. Other times, like when Basics Natural Foods in Janesville became Basics Cooperative in 2008, the business owners are involved with the conversion to a cooperative to save a company that is fulfilling a community need. That is what happened with Phil’s Food Mart in Plain when the Bettinger family, who owned the village’s one and only grocery since 1918, asked the community if they would like to sustain the local business by converting it to a cooperative. Another Food Co-op Initiative grant recipient, who also received mentoring and consulting support from the UW Center For Cooperatives, Honey Creek Market Cooperative has been a cooperative since 2013. Honey Creek Market’s conversion to a cooperative has had economic benefits in addition to fulfilling the village food needs. As former Phil’s owner Lew Bettinger said to the Wisconsin State Journal in 2013, “A small business in a small town for someone to make a living and retirement off of is very hard, but if it just has to pay its own expenses, it can do that very easily.” When cooperative owners contribute equitably to and control the capital of their business (Cooperative Principle 3), it makes it easier for the business to surpass its risks and enjoy its rewards.
Deerfield Grocery Co-op
Deerfield Grocery Co-op’s doors aren’t open yet, but they are well on their way to providing groceries and other personal and household items for their east Dane County community. Incorporated in 2013 after eight years with no village grocery store, the co-op hasdone its due diligence to open as soon as possible: holding community meetings, applying for and receiving a Food Co-op Initiative grant, incorporating and beginning their ownership drive to start building equity, getting out into the community by hosting and sponsoring breakfasts and the local farmers’ market, fundraising to benefit conducting their feasibility study with a chili cook-off, and more. At around 70 owners, they are seeking more investors in order to launch a major donor campaign and secure a location for their retail site. More information is available at www.deerfieldgrocerycoop.com.
Recently, a Co-op customer asked us if we would ever consider opening a Willy Street Co-op in Baraboo. Good news, it’s not necessary! Baraboo Co-op has also been working towards opening a retail food site and has its eyes set on launching a membership drive in the near future. According to The Baraboo News Republic, they are hoping to have their store open mid- to late-2015. They also have been doing all the things necessary to start a food co-op, including requesting and receiving a $10,000 Food Co-op Initiative grant, receiving a $5000 loan from Organic Valley, and working with CDS Consulting (Cooperative Development Services) to conduct feasibility studies, market analysis, site selection and owner recruitment. The co-op organizers see community economic development as one of the fundamental benefits of Baraboo Co-op opening its store, by providing local residents “meaningful employment opportunities with a path out of poverty.” Organizers are looking to generate more Friends of the Baraboo Co-op, and becoming their friend is easy, just find them on Facebook to receive updates about progress and ownership opportunities.
Oshkosh Food Co-op
New Leaf Market
Downtown Green Bay has been designated by the USDA as lacking access to a full service grocery. The area hasn’t had a grocery store for years. The 800+ owners of New Leaf Market Cooperative want to start their grocery co-op there, and have partnered with New Leaf Foods Inc., a 501(c)3 to promote wellness through healthy eating and prosperity. About 1500 owners invested in the co-op would help secure the financing they need to open for business. They are currently looking for a site where they do not have to build new and that includes good parking and public transportation access. Finding a site has posed challenges, but has not swayed the cooperative from its mission to create greater access to healthy food.
Allied Community Co-op
Here in Madison, the Allied Drive neighborhood has also been organizing cooperatively to meet community needs, and recently neighbors and various community organizations have incorporated as Allied Community Co-op, a multi-stakeholder cooperative designed to identify and create resources and activities that people in the community want for the community. The area, which has had struggles with poverty, has lacked a full-service grocery store since 2009. With Walgreens’ recent departure from the neighborhood, there are currently no other retailers providing food access to the community. Many individuals and families in the area lack access to adequate transportation, and so the need for a walking distance food store is critical. Allied Community Co-op has set its sights on the food security issue. As several private businesses have come and left and job security is also a concern, starting a food cooperative is among their ideas for how to resolve their community needs. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, a City staff team has recommended providing up to $300,000 to support securing an affordable, full-service grocery store, and there are high hopes to get a store operating in the neighborhood within the next year. Willy Street Co-op has pledged its support, and has begun providing mentoring services for the Allied Community Cooperative. On Tuesday, January 20, the Common Council met and accepted the staff report, which also included recommendations to appropriate an additional $15,000 to assist with immediate transportation needs to get to grocery stores outside of the neighborhood. Now that the report has been accepted, the City will get to work on language for the Council to approve reallocating those funds. We will continue to provide Owners with updates and information about engagement opportunities as planning unfolds.
Your Food, Your Economy, Your Co-op
We continue to get questions about where our third store will be located, and some questions come from further away than even our county line. We’ve had requests from Sauk City, Baraboo, Rockford, and beyond. Willy Street Co-op has only expanded once in its 40 years. We grow slowly, deliberately, and for our community. We also offer advice and support to start-up cooperatives in the region, and will continue to do so. If you like our business model, and our possible continued expansion doesn’t meet your most local community needs, there is nothing stopping your locale from taking food needs into your own hands. Many communities in our local area are doing so, and we encourage our Owners to support them in their endeavors! If you are interested in starting a grocery cooperative to meet your community needs, check out the resources Food Cooperative Initiative has to offer at www.foodcoopinitiative.coop. It’s your food and your economy. We are proud to be cooperating with you and to share the stories of other cooperatives budding in the region.