There are several kinds of cooperatives in Greater Philadelphia — housing co-ops, energy co-ops and credit unions, to name just a few — but food co-ops are perhaps the most well-known, in part due to the region’s growing local food and sustainability movements.
The simple definition of a food co-op is a type of consumer co-op that is owned and governed by members that buy equity in the co-op via a membership fee. Members then have a level of input in how the co-op is run. Food co-ops can range from small startups such as the Kensington Community Food Co-op to large organizations such as Weavers Way with multiple stores.
In addition to bringing local, healthy foods into both high-income and low-income communities, food cooperatives generally have a strong sense of community and prioritize their members as owners and decision makers. While they are not structured as a social service organization or charitable 501(c)3, many co-ops support other community endeavors and have shared principles that are agreed upon by the member-owners. Grocery shopping becomes not just a weekly task but an opportunity to connect with your neighbors and local businesses.
Member benefits range from discounted pricing to in-kind compensation for volunteer hours. In contrast to a private or stockholder-owned organization, a co-op member-owner has a stake in the business, and has the opportunity to be a part of the decision-making process.
In this piece, we look at the food cooperative movement in the Greater Philadelphia area. What are the long-standing organizations? What organizations are starting up in the area and how do they work together? What impact do food co-ops had on the local economy and how do they support the community?
For a greater understanding of the national and worldwide food cooperative movement, visit the co-op, stronger together website, which contains a historical overview and frequently asked questions.
Food Co-op Startups
The Mariposa Food Co-op was founded in 1971, Weavers Way in 1973, and the Swarthmore Food Co-op in 1932 (making it the the third oldest co-op in the country). Less than a decade ago, these establishments made up most of the food co-op sector in Greater Philadelphia.
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That is not the case today. The past few years have seen a wave of startups that, if successful, could more than triple the number food co-ops in the region.
“The growth in co-op membership has been dramatic. People want to participate in community and in helping to shape their community,” wrote Glen Bergman, general manager of Weavers Way, in a blog post for the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance (PACA).
Some of these startups have already opened, such as the Creekside Co-op in 2013, located just north of Philadelphia, and the Doylestown Food Co-op last January. Others continue to organize without a storefront. The pre-development phase for co-ops involves building support in the community and raising the capital needed to open a storefront through equity memberships and investors.
The Kensington Community Food Co-op recently announced its future location at the intersection of Lehigh, Coral and Frankford in the center of Kensington. The selection came after six years of building a membership base, forming a board of directors and looking for a good location. Much of this work was done by volunteers.
The South Philadelphia Food Co-op is in a similar situation, although it is still looking for a location. It recently released a t-shirt that reads “Everyone’s Favorite Theoretical Grocery Store,” making light of the co-op’s long development process. The co-op was first launched in 2010 by a group of South Philly residents, and today has over 500 members.
These two Philadelphia-based co-ops are the closest of the startups to opening, but another wave of co-ops is already putting down roots throughout the region. The Ambler Food Co-op recently reached 100 members, and startups in Collingswood, Manayunk-Roxborough and Conshohocken are in various stages of development.
Please let us know if we missed any food co-ops already established or in the startup phase in Greater Philadelphia by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org
With the co-op sector being so small, there seems to have always been some solidarity between co-ops in the region (that and the fact that co-ops are often, you know, cooperative). It wasn’t until recently that the food co-op sector took direct steps to work together.
In the spring of 2013, representatives from the four established co-ops — Creekside, Swarthmore, Weavers Way and Mariposa — formed the Delaware Valley Co-op Association as a way to collaborate and show solidarity. A number of big ideas were discussed in the initial meetings, including combining purchasing power, shared marketing and even a shared labor pool. Some of these ideas have come to fruition; others are still on the horizon.
The Delaware Valley Co-op Association has collaborated on marketing initiatives such as “Co-op Row,” a line of kiosks at the Xponential Music Festival on the Camden Waterfront. There has also been some instances of combining purchasing power — Generocity.org reported in May 2013 that Mariposa and Swarthmore had purchased bulk products together to reduce prices.
The Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance (PACA) has also helped to build community among co-ops. PACA was formed in 2012 at a conference held by Drexel University on co-ops. The group represents all co-ops in the region.
PACA’s current activities include working with Haverford College to conduct a study on the economic impact of co-ops, developing a loan fund for co-ops, and looking into the idea of starting a university center to study co-ops.
Attracting Low Income Customers
Throughout the region, co-ops are working to make food more accessible to low-income residents in their local neighborhoods. Each of the established co-ops, including Mariposa, Swarthmore, Weavers Way and Creekside, accept SNAP.
Many co-ops in the region do more than that and are actively developing sales strategies and assistance programs to attract more low-income customers.
“At Mariposa, we want everybody in our neighborhood to feel like this is their co-op, and we don’t want low income to keep people from becoming member-owners or from shopping here,” said Laura Smoot, Education & Outreach Coordinator at Mariposa Food Co-op.
When they were fundraising to move to a larger store, Mariposa also raised money for a Mariposa Membership Fund that subsidizes the $200 member equity investment for individuals who receive government assistance or are part of a household with income at or below the federal poverty guidelines.
“Our goal is to sponsor 10 percent or more of our member-owners through the Membership Fund to ensure that the Co-op reflects the needs and goals of our entire community, rather than those who can afford the equity investment,” Smoot added.
Mariposa works carefully to select what products they offer to make sure they have a wide range of foods available and to make sure that it’s possible to shop at the co-op on a tight budget. Around 40 staple items are sold at Mariposa Food Co-op at below margin, which means items are priced at a lower price point than is standard practice for the department, according to Smoot. Since moving to the new location, Mariposa has also joined the National Co-op Grocers Association and is able to offer it shoppers more items on sale through the NCGA’s “Co-op Deals” program.
“We work to ensure access to food, but also information about food,” said Smoot. “We have a library with cookbooks and books about nutrition and food politics, and we’re borrowing ideas from other co-ops and will be introducing new workshops and resources this fall themed around ‘Eating Healthy on a Tight Budget.’ We want everyone to know how to shop at our co-op and cook healthy, delicious meals for less than $2 per serving.”
At Swarthmore Co-op, Kira Montagno, the assistant operations manager, spearheaded a Back To Basics program after attending the CCMA conference two years ago. The program is designed to create an affordable option for low income shoppers and to make sure those options are healthy and sustainable. Montagno works with various department heads and vendors in order to collaborate on creating lower price points. Some vendors have created new products in order to be a part of this program, such as One Village Coffee.
Co-ops as Community Hubs
In 2007, Weavers Way created a nonprofit, Weavers Way Community Programs, as a way to expand its role in its community. The nonprofit teaches children, youth, and families to be healthy, strong, and informed through experiential activities centered on urban agriculture, nutrition, and the cooperative economy. The program includes a Farm Education program, which includes programs both at the The WWCP Children’s Garden and the Weavers Way Farm CSA.
Mariposa also organizes a number of community events to help bring neighbors together.
“We put deliberate effort into community-building: our workshops, book club, game night and library are more ways that we bring people together,” said Smoot. “And our working member program is another way that our co-op builds community: stocking shelves or working on a committee project together can be great ways to know your neighbors and be part of something bigger than yourself.”
In particular, the Social Justice Book Club (which Generocity.org covered last December) has brought together the community and co-op employees to discuss social justice issues as well as the history of co-ops as grassroots, political organizations.
In addition, Swarthmore said in recent years it has tried to create more events and to be involved in the growth of Swarthmore — a small town west Philadelphia in Delaware County. Food truckathons and smaller events (such as pop-up restaurants and Quizzo) have also been a huge hit, according to its marketing department.
Creekside Co-op general manager Mike Litka said they are always looking to have a connection to the community, adding that they have a community room that they use for lectures, cooking classes, Kids Corner events, and more. He said that they also feature local artists at their space on a rotating basis.
This look at food cooperatives is part of a monthly series to help our readers understand important aspects of the Social Impact Ecosystem (SIE). If you have a specific topic you would like to see covered, let us know by emailing email@example.com.
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Mariposa Food Co-op’s Social Justice Book Club Goes Beyond Just Groceries
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