Earlier this month, a group of Sierra County residents had their first (virtual) meeting regarding the hope of opening a natural foods co-op in Truth or Consequences. The group discussed the steps needed to ultimately open a grocery store that is owned by the community. It will feature, they envision, locally grown and produced foods, organic and natural foods and other sustainable products.
How does this work? The cooperative business model has been helping communities pool their resources to fill a specific need for several centuries. From providing hardware to housing, agricultural supplies to electricity, foods and more—co-ops gain strength through . . . cooperation.
A food co-op is a food outlet organized as a cooperative, rather than a private or public company. Food co-ops typically have hundreds of member-owners, who elect a board of directors, who in turn hire a general manager to oversee staff and operations. The board, which represents the membership, also steers the vision and mission of a co-op.
To become a member, a minimum requirement is an equity investment, often $20 per year. A lifetime membership might run $200. Each member receives one vote, regardless of numbers of shares owned. One does NOT need to be a member to shop.
What are the benefits of being a member-owner? While a co-op’s policies regarding benefits aren’t decided until incorporation and establishment of a board of directors, typically co-op member-owners receive a share of profits in years when their co-op has been profitable. Some stores achieve this through actual payments after the year-end financials have been calculated, while others offer discounts as the members’ share of the profits; still other stores offer a combination of both. Usually, member-owners receive special discounts even in unprofitable years.
Other benefits include learning and volunteer opportunities, and, for the community at large, education and enrichment. For example, co-ops often hold cooking and health-related classes on site, support community gardens and sponsor community events. They offer similar programming to local schools and youth programs.
This winter, Samantha Yarrington mentioned to me that she wanted to start a food co-op in Truth or Consequences. She knew that I was a co-op veteran, having worked at Mountain View Market in Las Cruces for 15 years, where I focused on community outreach and co-op education. After moving to Sierra County 10 years ago, I continued to support my co-op in Las Cruces, while practicing as a home birth midwife and building our off-grid home and family farm in Monticello with my partner and children.
When Mountain View Market closed after 45 years of operation in early December, 2020, it was a devastating loss to me and my family. While the closure of a grocery store isn’t often something that a family deeply mourns, the closure of a co-op is different. Co-ops are centers of community, and the co-op was a second home and family for my household and many others. When Samantha approached me, I knew this project was one into which I was ready to invest my time and heart.
Samantha has been spending her winters in Sierra County for five years and gave birth to her two daughters here. In fact, that’s how we met. I was honored to be her midwife for both girls. Samantha and her family are now hoping to put down permanent roots in Sierra County, and, as they’ve fallen in love with the community, they are also ready to do the work needed to build the community resources they desire.
Samantha’s goals for the co-op includes locally sourced produce, dairy and meats, as well as freshly prepared products like breads, pastas and granola, and locally made cleaning, health and body care supplies. A natural foods store also needs to have reliable and consistent staples, and we hope to source anything we can’t get locally from organic, fair trade and ethically manufactured sources. We dream of a community gathering place that has a nourishing environment.
I asked Samantha to share her “favorite” of the seven core principles espoused by cooperatives around the world. “If I had to choose one, ‘Concern for Community’ is critical and really a driving inspiration,” she responded. “I see in our community many talented and wonderful individuals, but there is a certain element not yet at play, which is a cohesive binding tool bringing everyone together. We will all thrive if we collaborate on creating more sustainable networks to provide the community to enhance our community through fresh, nutrient-rich food.”
For me, the cooperative principle of “Autonomy and Independence” is possibly the most compelling, as I’m deeply concerned with the unchecked growth of homogenous corporate culture. I find the concept of owning a grocery store with my friends and neighbors to be an act of rebellion and love. A cooperative can operate outside the reach of the corporate oligarchy, forging new and age-old pathways toward wealth equality, justice and sustainability. Local food systems and a focus on accessibility to organic and natural foods are not only beneficial to the health of our communities and ecosystems, but also to our sense of autonomy and independence.
As Samantha and I began to research the nuts and bolts of starting a food co-op, we enlisted the help of mentors from the co-op world and the local community. We learned that turning the idea of a co-op into bricks and mortar is a labor of love that can take years. Thankfully, the organization, Cooperative Development Services, has developed a framework for co-op startups comprised of “Four Cornerstones in 3 Stages.” The cornerstones of vision, talent, capital and systems are all needed within each of the three stages of food co-op development: organizing, feasibility and planning, and implementation.
We are asking community members to join us in moving through these phases, as the second core value of a cooperative is “Democratic Member Control.” Our co-op can’t just embody the dreams of two people! We’ve taken the first step to solicit ideas by launching an online survey that, along with a local market study, will help us determine the capabilities, size and scope of a co-op that will serve the needs of our unique community.
About 230 community members responded to our survey, an outpouring of interest that prompted us to call our first virtual meeting on Feb. 16. At that meeting, several people came forward and offered their strengths for the work ahead.
After the work of dreaming and researching comes the work of legal incorporation and election of a board by the member-owners. Then begins the work of applying for grant funding for cooperative startups and economic development.
If you’re interested in helping to guide this endeavor, please start by completing the survey here and providing your email. Keep in touch via our Facebook group, T or C Food Co-op. We’ll hold our second open meeting on Zoom on March 2 at 6:30 p.m. Please join us at https://zoom.us/j/92512656813, meeting ID 925 1265 6813. We can’t wait to hear “What’s YOUR Vision for a Food Co-op in T or C.”