Reflections on “Up & Coming” — by Alex Kent

There’s a rumbling in the food co-op world and cooperators across the country are realizing that food co-ops need to get back to the basics of cooperative enterprise.

Representing the Amherst Food Co-op, board member JuPong Lin and I attended the “Up & Coming” food co-op conference in Milwaukee, held March 15-17. The conference, sponsored by the Indiana Cooperative Development Center and the Food Co-op Initiative, brings together people from food co-ops across the US. An annual event, Up & Coming is a chance to learn from the experts and from each other about what it takes to build a cooperative grocery store. Most participants represent startups that have yet to build a physical store. I sensed an enormous amount of hope among the nearly 300 participants – and a lot of anxiety as well.

Everyone trying to start a food co-op these days knows that the grocery business is fiercely competitive. Even the biggest, most successful grocery store chains consider themselves lucky to maintain a 3% profit margin. Conventional grocery stores – yes, even mega-chains like Walmart and Costco – are all stocking their shelves with organic foods. Locally, we see stores like Big Y and Stop & Shop carrying some local produce. And everyone knows that Amazon and its stratospherically rich CEO Jeff Bezos have gone into the organic grocery business big time with the acquisition of Whole Foods.

So how can food co-ops, which still make up only a small fraction of the US retail food sector, compete in this environment? How can food co-ops, with their reputation for high prices, attract and retain customers, build member-ownership, and contribute to stronger, more resilient communities?

I left the conference with the understanding that the key to a strong, durable, and growing cooperative movement lies in a return to what cooperative enterprise is all about: A powerful, grassroots response to what is not right in the world. To survive and thrive, food cooperatives must address inequality, insecurity, and injustice in their communities and beyond. That’s the value only a co-op can offer. If we fail in this fundamental mission, our food co-op will be nothing more than a small, pricey, specialty food shop struggling to compete against the likes of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. The Amherst Food Co-op has a higher mission than that.

In the coming weeks, JuPong and I will report on what we learned at Up & Coming. Other members of the Amherst Food Co-op board of directors who attended the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA) annual meeting in Greenfield, MA will be reporting on their experience at that event.

The purpose of this reporting – indeed, the overarching purpose of this blog – is to answer a fundamental question: Why do we need a food co-op in Amherst?

Stay tuned!

Alex Kent
Alex Kent — Board President, Amherst Food Co-op