These days the news can be disheartening, so I’ll often look elsewhere for ways to feed my heart. That might be more thoughtful, in-depth reporting; inspiring (or escapist) prose or poetry; a …
These days the news can be disheartening, so I’ll often look elsewhere for ways to feed my heart. That might be more thoughtful, in-depth reporting; inspiring (or escapist) prose or poetry; a movie or music; or a phone call to a friendly voice. Rarely has that encouragement and inspiration come from an annual report, but when I read about Duluth’s Whole Foods Co-op’s journey through its last fiscal year, that’s exactly what I received: a beautiful example of people working together to improve life for themselves and others. So I dove into some background on the whole cooperative movement.
Cooperatives are businesses owned and controlled by the people who use them and differ from other businesses because they operate for the benefit of members rather than to earn profits for investors. There are 40,000 co-ops in the U.S. that serve one out of every four citizens. The cooperative form of ownership has been used primarily for housing (think New York), finance (think credit unions), agriculture, insurance, utilities, health care and child care.
The motivations behind diverse cooperatives are similar: to bring together a group of people with similar needs to use the power of a group to obtain products or services otherwise unavailable, to improve product or service quality, or to reduce costs; to expand marketing opportunities; to increase income; and/or to improve bargaining power. Members invest in cooperatives because they trust that doing so is in the best interest of themselves and the community.
The beginning of the modern cooperative movement is traced to the industrial revolution (1750-1850) when people were pushed off farms and out of small towns into larger cities. Mutual aid organizations were created to meet the social needs of dislocated people and contributed to the formation of cooperative business principles. Some people felt cooperatives fit a vision of a more harmonious, utopian society. William King published the magazine “The Cooperator,” full of information about cooperative practice and theory. He believed the development of consumer cooperatives governed with democratic principles would address working class issues, and emphasized that small cooperatives could be started with capital supplied by members. The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, organized in 1844, is considered the prototype for the modern cooperative association with a set of principles for successful cooperative business operations still used in cooperative practice today. The 1840’s brought famine and hardship in Europe, and cooperative responses help meet the needs. Cooperative banks spread across Europe, the forerunners of credit unions and the cooperative farm credit system in North America. Cooperative farm marketing and farm supply organizations flourished in Denmark in the 1870’s without government assistance, and the Folk High School system is given partial credit for their success. The Folk High School system, which spawned folk schools all over the globe, was established to provide non-formal, liberal arts education to the public, at a time when only the wealthy classes were educated. That access to education helped create an active and engaged citizenry necessary for a democratic society to function well.
In the U.S., the first recognized cooperative business was a mutual fire insurance company founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1752, which still operates today. In 1810, dairy and cheese cooperatives were organized, followed by co-ops for other agricultural commodities. With westward expansion, more cultivated land created a surplus of farm products, and farmers faced difficult conditions with low prices, high freight charges, and high interest rates. Marketing cooperatives were organized by farmers to counteract the difficulties. Racial discrimination made it hard for southern black farmers to participate, and they formed their own organizations. In the second half of the 19th century, more and larger marketing and purchasing cooperatives and co-op stores appeared.
Reacting to monopolistic practices and excesses of capitalism, interest in cooperatives grew around the turn of the century as they were seen as a path to a more socially responsive economy. The Cooperative Lease of the U.S. (CLUSA) was organized in 1916 to promote a broad cooperative agenda, drawing support from the social democratic Finnish cooperatives in the Upper Midwest and agricultural cooperative purchasing associations. The USDA and university extension services supported cooperative efforts, and federal support increased during the Great Depression through the Farm Credit Act (1933), the Federal Credit Union Act (1934), and the Rural Electrification Act (1937).
The civil rights movement embraced cooperatives as a way to support independent black farmers in the south. Interest in alternative food systems and a lack of access to natural and organic foods caused a revival of consumer food co-ops during the mid-1960’s and early 1970’s, which in turn were a major influence on the growth and development of the organic and natural foods market.
Many co-ops started in the basement, kitchen, or back porch of a house and expanded to become very successful businesses. The Linden Hill Co-op in Minneapolis, formed in 1977, was typical of the collaborative effort with everyone pitching in and getting the work done. Customers and members said that the friendship and community spirit were just as important as the fresh produce. The Wedge and Linden Hills co-ops in Minneapolis merged in 2016 to form the third largest retail food co-op in the nation with 25,000 members and over 500 employees. Lakewinds Co-op with stores in Chanhassen, Minnetonka, and Richfield is the fifth largest.
Although co-ops have grown in size and sophistication, that spirit of community is still valued and nurtured through careful attention to quality products, fair treatment of workers, support of community social needs, and democratic operating principles. Minnesota has more food co-ops than any other state, and the Twin Cities ranks second in the nation in retail food sales with $213 million sold in 2019.
Why was that annual report so inspiring? The Whole Foods Community Co-op began as a buying club with 20 members, 50 years ago. In their fiscal year ending in July 2020, it had $20,737,825 in revenue, and gave $240,483 in owner discounts and $63,200 in discounts to owners with limited incomes. $183,000 in food was donated to agencies fighting hunger. $157,400 was donated to local community programs. $4,774,172 was invested in staff. And during this challenging time of the pandemic, which cost the co-op dearly through the fourth quarter, instead of asking staff to sacrifice, their wages were raised $2/hour.
Why is that inspiring? With all the polarized dissension, ugly rhetoric, and unwillingness to work together that we see in Congress, the White House, and many parts of our country, the Whole Food Co-op and others like it are a beacon of hope that human beings really can do it. They have proven that we can actually cooperate and work together to create a better world through a connected, caring community. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been many and intense differences of opinions in the process, but they figured it out, made it 50 years, and in the process managed to build another store in Denfield, a neighborhood previously lacking in sufficient grocery stores. Sit up and pay attention, Washington.