Though a global pandemic and ease of technology has sent millions of grocery shoppers online to order from Instacart and Amazon, the most grassroots and socially connected form of grocery shopping has been surprisingly untouched. In fact, grocery co-ops have grown during the pandemic, with overall sales increasing 10% during 2020, a year full of supply and social disruptions.
What do co-ops do differently?
Erbin Crowell, Executive Director of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA), leads the regional federation of food co-ops across the New England and New York region. He believes the key to co-ops’ resilience while other business models struggle is the inherent community buy-in.
People understand that when you shop at a food co-op, you are doing more than getting healthy food for yourself and your family. You are also sustaining good jobs, a market for local producers, and a more inclusive way of doing business.—Erbin Crowell, Executive Director of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association
He says that because grocery co-ops are owned by the community — the people who actively shop and work there — members have a deeper level of commitment to the success of the business.
Crowell was hired in 2010 by a group of food co-op leaders mostly in the Connecticut River Valley to coordinate the incorporation and development of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association. Their goal was to create an organization that would enable them to work more closely together to contribute to shared success. They also hoped to strengthen the regional food system and grow the cooperative economy.
Since then, they have grown to a network of more than 40 food co-ops and startup initiatives, locally owned by 164,000 members across New England and New York State, generating over $382 million in shared revenue. Their four-person staff focuses on facilitating peer collaboration, education, training, marketing, and food system development. About a quarter of their membership is startup initiatives, reflecting community interest in cooperative enterprise and a more healthy, just, and sustainable food system.
“I think that much of the growth among our food co-ops during the pandemic came from more people doing their shopping close to home where they had the opportunity to remember that their local food co-op wasn’t just about healthy food,” Crowell says.
In 2020, nearly 13,000 people joined their local grocery co-ops, reflecting growing interest in building community and supporting one another during challenging times.
Local co-ops have also been responsive and innovative during the pandemic, Crowell says, helping to keep shoppers and workers safe with services like online ordering, curbside pickup, and special shopping hours for older and immunocompromised shoppers.
“Food co-ops are also community hubs, sources of sustainable jobs, outlets for local producers, and community infrastructure,” he says.
Crafting a sustainable recovery
Crowell says that as they emerge from the pandemic, part of their task will be ensuring that people remember that choosing their local grocery co-op is a way of building and sustaining more vibrant, resilient, and participatory communities and more healthy and sustainable regional food systems.
NFCA has also been active in education and solutions surrounding the Build Back for Impact campaign in coordination with the National Cooperative Business Association. The goal was to create an opportunity for co-ops to communicate what makes them different and how communities can use them as they emerge from the pandemic, and rebuild in a way that is more just, inclusive, and sustainable.
Our co-ops took the opportunity of this campaign to celebrate at a challenging time and inspire people for the future. We wanted to share an optimism that we can make the world better, together.—Erbin Crowell
For example, he says, two of their co-ops completed major expansions during the pandemic, increasing their ability to employ more people, support more local producers, and provide more people with healthy food. They also took the opportunity to educate their communities about how food co-ops are just one part of the cooperative economy. In fact, when considering farmer co-ops, worker co-ops, credit unions, mutual insurance, housing co-ops, and energy co-ops, one in three people are already co-op members.
Resilient by nature
Seeing co-ops thrive during such a tumultuous time, it makes sense that the modern cooperative movement itself was launched in response to societal change.
During the Industrial Revolution – as a reaction to economic upheaval, dislocation of local economies, and concentration of wealth and control – people began to work together to create a viable economic alternative based on member ownership, democratic control, and meeting community needs.
Most of the present food co-ops in this region emerged during the 1970s and ’80s, as people worked together to access healthy, organic, and bulk foods, and began to advance new ideas such as fair trade. Today, the members of the NFCA are member-owned, democratically-governed community grocery stores ranging in size from large, multiple storefront retailers with thousands of members to smaller markets with just a few hundred.
The bulk of these co-ops have been in operation for more than 20 years, though some such as the Putney Food Co-op and the Co-op Food Stores (Hanover Consumer Co-op), have been active since the 1930s and ’40s.
The future is co-operative
Keystone values among the NFCA collective include developing local skills and assets, creating leadership and professional development opportunities, regional efficiencies through the pooling of purchasing power and other economic activities, and the support of vibrant, participatory, and engaged communities.
The past two years have seen these member co-ops working to support one another, sharing innovations and ideas, and strengthening their communities at a challenging time.
Looking forward, the NFCA is working to demonstrate the role of cooperative enterprise in building stronger communities, supporting the growth and development of member co-ops, and reaching out to farmers and likeminded groups to advance shared goals of a healthy, just, and sustainable food system.