Bottom Dollar Food’s store in Ambler, PA opened in October 2013 to great fanfare: The mayor of Ambler, Bud Wahl, gushed in a press release: “Right now, we don’t have a grocery store in Ambler…our community has been waiting for the store and could not be more excited.”
Now, just one year later, Ambler will once again lack a grocery store. Bottom Dollar Food announced last month that it will be closing all of its Philadelphia-area stores.
However, residents of Ambler are organizing to open a food co-op, a grocery store they will co-own and democratically control. And there’s little chance that Ambler Food Co-op would decide to relocate — its sole purpose will be to operate a grocery store in Ambler.
Cooperatives are the original social enterprise. They are businesses that exist to meet a community’s needs. In this new series, I will explore the cooperative movement in the Philadelphia region. Our region has more than 100 co-ops, including food co-ops, credit unions, energy co-ops, worker co-ops, housing co-ops, childcare co-ops, artist co-ops, producer co-ops and more. I’ll give you the rundown on interesting programs and events happening around Philly area co-ops, connect Philly’s co-op movement to national and international conversations, and discuss questions about how to grow our region’s cooperative economy in a just and sustainable way.
My interest in cooperatives began around 2009 when I moved to Bellingham, a small city in Washington state. Bellingham boasts a 17,000 member food co-op and a credit union to which half of the county’s residents belong. As I got involved in these two beloved community institutions, I grew fascinated about the cooperative model.
During a dark northwest winter, I read everything I could get my hands on about co-ops. I was working at a very traditional social service agency and I was frustrated that so many resources were poured into providing band-aid services that did nothing to address the root causes of economic inequality. I found that cooperative enterprises are nestled in a sweet spot between nonprofits and conventional businesses. I began to see the cooperative model as a long term, nonpartisan method for democratizing wealth and social power.
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Since that winter, I’ve embraced cooperative enterprise as the focus of my work and community involvement. I returned to Philadelphia in 2012 and quickly joined the efforts to launch the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance (PACA), a cross-sector membership association for co-ops and a co-op itself. Today, PACA has an executive director, Peter Frank, and 15 co-ops and credit unions as members.
In the United States, co-ops have long grouped themselves along sectoral lines – e.g., an association of housing co-ops or credit unions or food co-ops. Building connections across these different sectors is a huge opportunity for collaboration and growth.
Our region is experiencing a wonderful co-op boom. Several startup co-ops are now launching and are building on the success of veteran co-ops like Childspace CDI, Weavers Way Co-op, Mariposa Food Co-op, and many others. South Philly Food Co-op and Kensington Community Food Co-op are both nearing the moments when their years of organizing will result in real, brick-and-mortar grocery stores in their neighborhoods. Win Win Coffee Bar, a new cafe and restaurant opening at 9th and Spring Garden, organized themselves as a worker-owned co-op to bring democracy into their business operations. Temple students have founded the new Rad Dish Co-op Cafe after finding campus food options lacking.
These co-op startups take a long time to get started, especially compared to the pop-up storefronts of investor-owned corporations like Bottom Dollar Food. But the resulting co-op is an organization that is permanently rooted in a place and totally committed to a specific community.
Even the co-op startup process itself is incredibly valuable: it is community organizing. It is neighbors meeting neighbors and talking about their common problems and their shared visions. It’s building lasting economic democracy that could transform our daily lives.
Photo via Co-ops 101
Caitlin Quigley is a proud co-op fanatic. She helped launch the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance and is a member-owner of Mariposa Food Co-op, The Energy Co-op, and Philadelphia Federal Credit Union. In her work, Caitlin has focused on organizing to strengthen local economies and fundraising for social justice movements. Caitlin lives in West Philly and is a dedicated but slow-moving bike commuter. You can follow Caitlin on Twitter at @cequigley.