“Co-operatives are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility.” — Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General
I have to take a deep breath as I write this. I love co-ops. I love the idea behind this quote, and in essence, it’s true. However, I feel like the greater truth is that the “social responsibility” calling has to precede the “economic viability” possibility. Especially in the case of food co-ops, it is a tall order to offer “local”, “organic”, “eco-friendly”, AND “inexpensive”. Are our ethics worth as much as our time? How much room for social conscience is in anyone’s budget these days? Will our co-op effort be successful? These are the tough questions we need to ask.
We are sorry to hear that just a few days ago, a neighboring Maryland food co-op announced its closing, due to financial failure. We will be reaching out to their Board of Directors, and hope to learn as much as we can from their experience. The road to a full service food co-op involves many complex decisions, based on specific community needs. Pricing, product range, volunteer vs. paid staff, educational and charitable works, all vary from co-op to co-op. In our current phase, we owe it to ourselves to pinpoint what is needed here, and what will be supported to success in our community.
The planned topic for this week’s blog was the 3rd cooperative principle, which is “Members Economic Participation”.
Members contribute equally to, and democratically control, the capital of the cooperative. This benefits members in proportion to the business they conduct with the cooperative rather than on the capital invested.
Don’t get me wrong, this is essential. There has to be money. We are so grateful for the financial support we have received so far from our Founding Members. However, a food co-op is not just a cause we can throw money at and hope to see it happen. Time and energy are capital too. Active participation in discussions and decisions are essential. We have a core of dedicated, passionate, volunteers working 10-20 hours a week, for free, in the complicated field of cooperative business. We are out at each and every community event we can be, educating people about our mission, and yet we don't have enough dedicated volunteers to cover them all. In general terms, we need a constant, steady increase of members, who are committed, invested, and enthusiastic. That is the only way this will work. Our upcoming feasibility study and community survey will reveal specific figures.
Food co-ops can be and are successful and beneficial in a wide variety of communities. (Just take a trip to Common Market in Frederick!) They are a time-tested way to support regional agriculture, local producers, and build social awareness. But there is an immense amount of work involved, a sizeable chunk of money needed, and quite a bit of patience required, all from the community that is hoping eventually to benefit. So, in our community, let’s have this discussion. Do we want a food co-op enough to make it happen?
Former Steering Committee President, and Founding Member