Neighboring Food Co-ops: A Decade of Collective Impact

Urban Greens Co-op Market

photo by Erbin Crowell
A New Food Co-op in the neighborhood!
Urban Greens Co-op Market grand opening in Providence, RI, June 2019.

From healthy food to organic agriculture, Fair Trade to building stronger local economies, good jobs to renewable energy, food co-ops have been pioneers, empowering people to work together to make the world a better place. At the same time, they have not always done a good job in telling their stories, working together to measure and communicate our collective impact, and leveraging shared strength for mutual success.

Almost ten years ago, in the Winter 2010-11 issue of The Natural Farmer, I wrote about a group of food co-ops that had recently begun to work together to change this. The article, “Collaboration for a Thriving Regional Economy,” described the efforts of an informal group of managers, board members, and support organizations who had begun a conversation in 2004 about what the future could look like if they worked together more deliberately. Regional collaboration was seen as an opportunity and strategy for pooling resources, leveraging scale, and sharing ideas and innovations for shared success.

In 2007, this group gathered in Vermont and approved the Middlebury Manifesto, expressing the desire to work collaboratively to “further the ideals of democracy, cooperation, autonomy and education as enshrined in the International Co-operative Principles”. The document goes on to state the intent of participating co-ops to “reorient the economy from one dedicated to maximizing individual wealth to one calculated to advance the common good,” and to “provide occasions for collective action to build a co-operative economy in our geographic region”. Reflecting Wendell Berry’s assertion that “a viable community is made up of neighbors who cherish and protect what they have in common,” the network established itself as the “Connecticut Valley Neighboring Co-ops.”

Building on this momentum, a representative steering committee was established and the group then embarked on a process of scenario planning in which it explored potential outcomes of recent trends in the economy, culture and politics of the region. What might our region’s economy look like in 2020? How could food co-ops work together with like minded organizations and networks to create more resilient communities as we look toward a post-petroleum economy? How could we avoid duplication of effort in order to support other initiatives, focus on our core strengths, and advance a shared vision for the future?

Before determining where they wanted to be in the future, these co-ops wanted to understand where we were in the present. So, in 2009 these co-ops hired independent economic analyst Doug Hoffer to undertake a survey of member co-ops in Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut to collect and analyze data about their impact on the regional economy. The study told a powerful but largely untold story of the shared impact food co-ops were already having.

For example, the 17 co-ops included in the original study were surprised to learn that they had a combined membership of 64,000 people and aggregate annual sales exceeding $161 million (2008). These co-ops also had a dramatic impact in the regional economy, including local purchases of more than $30 million and over 1,200 employees. Average wages were 18% higher than the average for food and beverage stores in the same states and co-ops had lower staff turnover (36%) when compared to supermarkets (59%) and more staff employed fulltime (62% compared to 43% in supermarkets). Taken together, Vermont food co-ops were among the top 25 employers in the state!

It was in large part due to the recognition of this shared impact that these co-ops established the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA), incorporated as a co-operative of food co-ops with the shared vision of a thriving co-operative economy, rooted in a healthy, just and sustainable regional food system and a vibrant community of co-operative enterprise.

Co-op Impact a Decade Later

In 2018, the NFCA conducted a follow up survey of the co-ops that participated in the original study to better understand what had changed over the past decade. In the wake of the global recession and dramatically increased competition, how had these food co-ops fared? What impact have they made, together?

While one of the 17 co-ops that participated in the original study has since closed its doors, the total number of storefronts grew from 22 to 24 as existing co-ops have opened additional locations to serve new communities. Even more compelling was the growth reported by the remaining 16 co-ops included in the research. For example:

  • Membership increased by 38%, from 64,000 to more than 88,000, demonstrating growing interest in co-operative enterprise;
  • Shared revenue grew 39%, from $161 million to over $224 million, representing continuing growth in an increasingly competitive marketplace;
  • Sales of local products grew 23%, from an estimated $52.4 million to $64.7 million;
  • Employment grew 20% from 1,240 to 1,485; and
  • Staff wages grew 69%, from $28.6 million to almost $48.3 million, reflecting the commitment of food co-ops to good, sustainable jobs.

These results helped shed light on the power of food co-ops in the region and the enormous potential of working together to build a more resilient and inclusive food system and economy.

Of course, these 16 food co-ops alone don’t tell the whole story. As the NFCA as a whole has grown, so has our collective impact. The association now includes over 35 food co-ops and start-ups across all six New England states and New York State, with six new co-ops opening their doors in the past ten years. These businesses are locally owned by over 154,700 people, with more than 13,000 becoming members in the past year alone. NFCA member co-ops employ over 2,300 people, 60% of whom are also member-owners, representing a powerful example of community and employee ownership. Together, they generate shared annual revenue of $330 million, sold $93 million in local products, and donated over $1 million to community organizations and non-profits.

Collaboration for Innovation

Food Co-op Board Members at NFCA

photo by Bonnie Hudspeth
Food Co-op Board Members at NFCA Peer Training discuss experiences and strategies for building more inclusive co-operatives.

In addition to these numerical impacts, collaboration has had other less tangible but meaningful impacts. A priority has been the development of pilot projects to test the viability of regional sourcing to increase our support of regional producers and accomplish shared goals. To date these efforts have focused on two projects, one promoting local artisan cheese makers and another on our own line of frozen fruits and vegetables. This year, Suzette Snow-Cobb, who served as a member of the management team at founding NFCA member co-op Franklin Community Co-operative, was hired to coordinate these efforts and begin planning for future priorities.

“As a participant in the early days of the NFCA, it was hard to imagine where we would be in 10 years,” says Suzette. “But it was clear that our co-ops needed to be working together to address the gaps in regional sourcing and continue to differentiate ourselves in the ever-increasing competitive market, and I am happy to be part of that effort.”

Over the course of the last decade, the NFCA’s “Cave to Co-op” project, a partnership with distributor Provisions International, has sold over 28 tons of cheese from local artisan makers. Meanwhile, “Farm to Freezer,” our line of Northeast grown frozen fruits and vegetables has enabled consumers to support our region’s farmers year-round. And our “Go Co-op” program encourages people to look for and learn more about other co-ops in the food system when they shop, helping to build a stronger, more vibrant co-operative economy.

By working together, our co-ops have also been able to raise their profile in our region through collective advertising, community engagement and collaboration with partner organizations. For example, the NFCA is a sponsor of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) Summer Conference where for the past five years we have organized a track of workshops, panels and film showings on co-ops, in collaboration with regional organizational partners such as the Cooperative Fund of New England (CFNE), New England Farmers Union, the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-ops (VAWC), and other co-ops in our region including Cabot Creamery Co-op, Deep Root Organic Co-op, Equal Exchange, Local Harvest Co-op CSA, Organic Valley, and Real Pickles. We also been active in advocacy, working in collaboration with the Farmers Union to represent our regional food system before policymakers in DC, defending co-operative statutes in Vermont, working to update them in Connecticut, and supporting co-op development.

Another example of our collective impact is our collaboration with the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Department of Economics and VAWC to create one of the only undergraduate certificate programs in co-operatives. Launched in 2010, the Certificate in Applied Research in Co-operative Enterprise includes hands on internships, enabling students to gain firsthand knowledge of co-operative enterprise while bringing a new perspective to the challenges and opportunities of the day. In addition to helping our co-ops quantify impact and helping out at our Annual Meeting and other gatherings, many of our interns have focused their academic research on topics of co-ops and social media, engaging youth, and diversity and inclusion.

In 2011, when the impacts of the global recession were becoming clear, the NFCA worked in collaboration with CFNE, NEFU, and Hunger Free Vermont, to launch its “Food Co-ops & Healthy Food Access” initiative. Recognizing the growing challenge of food insecurity in the Northeast, the NFCA reached out to community organizations to better understand the issue and to develop strategies for making healthy food more accessible to people on limited budgets. This resulted in a coordinated strategy promoting “Co-op Basics” programs among member food co-ops (now a program of National Co+op Grocers) and “Food for All” initiatives designed to make healthy food more affordable to shoppers on food assistance. Significantly, our efforts focus on the key co-operative difference of member-ownership, increasing access to participation as a tool for empowerment and economic. As a result of this work, 13 member co-ops now have launched such programs and report significant increases in membership as a result. In addition, these efforts to understand how we can be more representative of our communities has supported a deeper dialogue on diversity and inclusion among our co-ops, carried forward in presentations and dialogs at our last few Annual Meetings.

These dialogs have been particularly relevant to food co-op start-ups in our region, many of which are organizing in more urban communities and have food security, diversity, and inclusion as central to their founding purpose. In addition to providing forums for exchange with existing co-ops and service providers, the NFCA works to ensure that start-ups don’t have to go it alone in establishing a successful new food co-op. Member Programs Manager Bonnie Hudspeth, former project manager for Monadnock Food Co-op while in its start up phase, convenes coordinated calls with start-ups organizers to share challenges and ideas.

Northeast Grown Frozen Fruits

Photo by Erbin Crowell
Northeast Grown Frozen Fruits & Vegetables from the Neighboring Food Co-op Association enable shoppers to support our region’s farmers year ‘round!

Key to our impact in supporting start-ups in our region is our partnership with Food Co-op Initiative (FCI), a national non-profit organization working to increase the number, success and sustainability of new food co-operatives delivering access to healthy food in diverse communities across this country. FCI staff have been regular contributors to our regional gatherings and participate in our two monthly peer group calls to provide technical assistance and valuable resources to our start-ups. “Whether providing grants, resources, trainings, technical assistance or other services to start-ups, FCI has been a key partner for the NFCA and our member co-ops,” says Bonnie.

The momentum among start-ups in our region has continued with a number of food co-ops opening their doors since 2010 including Monadnock Food Co-op (NH), Morrisville Food Co-op (VT), Old Creamery Co-op (MA), Portland Food Co-op (ME), and Urban Greens Co-op Market (RI). Unfortunately, the past few years have seen the closing of a few food co-ops in our region, including Harvest Co-op Markets (MA), St J Food Co-op (VT), and Stone Valley Community Market (VT). At the same time, many existing co-ops continue to grow with expansions completed or in the planning stages at a number of co-ops including Blue Hill Co-op (ME), Brattleboro Food Co-op (VT), City Market, Onion River Co-op (VT), Fiddleheads Food Co-op (CT), Flatbush Food Co-op (NY), GreenStar Food Co-op (NY), Hanover Co-op Food Stores (NH & VT), Littleton Food Co-op (NH), Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op (VT), Putney Food Co-op (VT), and River Valley Co-op (MA).

By working together, our co-ops have been able to provide a space for ongoing relationship building among managers, staff, and board members, as well as partner organizations and other co-op sectors. In addition to annual gatherings that include presentations, panels, and workshops, the NFCA has organized department specific peer training events where representatives from various co-ops can network, share ideas, and explore innovations together. Recent examples have included peer trainings for produce, marketing, and finance personnel. At this year’s peer training event, nearly 60 board members from co-ops across the Northeast got together for a rare opportunity to gather independently and share ideas on participant identified topics including “Member Engagement Strategies that Work,” “Successful Board Recruitment and Retention Strategies,” and “The Challenges and Rewards of Diversity and Inclusion (or Honoring Co-op Vision/Mission).” This fall, for the second year, we are also working with Saint Mary’s University in Nova Scotia and their Co-operative Management Education program to offer professional training opportunities for co-op managers, staff, and board members so they can more fully integrate co-operative business principles into successful strategies for growth and development.

Federation, Collaboration & Innovation

Regarding the 6th Principle of the Co-operative Identity, “Co-operation among Co-ops,” the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) Guidance Notes state that, “secondary co-operatives, which are co-operatives whose members are primary co-operatives, [act] as a place to share knowledge and resources, and to support co-operatives independently and collectively.” The NFCA is proud to be just that: a regional co-operative of food co-ops. In this sense, the NFCA is a mechanism for local collaboration and a complement to national associations such as NCG and cross sector organizations like NCBA CLUSA. By pooling our assets — financial, intellectual, and strategic — we are better able to support the success of individual co-ops, engage shoppers, policymakers, and activists, and demonstrate the potential of co-operative enterprise on the local level.

“The NFCA is owned by its member co-ops, governed by an elected Board of Directors made up of managers and board members, and guided by a vision of collaboration,” states Board President, Faye Mack, who also serves as Board President of City Market, Onion River Co-op in Burlington, VT. “By coming together to learn from one another, challenge one another, and support one another, all within the structure of a co-operative, we can direct and grow the food co-op model throughout our region and have a bigger impact than each of our individual member co-ops could alone.”

Ten years since our first impact study, the NFCA has been able to leverage collective resources to accomplish our mission of supporting growth, innovation, and shared success among our member food co-ops through collaboration, education, and partnership. As our co-ops look to the future, collaboration will continue be key to our success in achieving the vision of a more fair, sustainable, and inclusive food system and economy that works for everyone.

Erbin Crowell is Executive Director of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association and serves as Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Cooperative Business Association, CLUSA International. He received his Master of Management: Co-operatives & Credit Unions from Saint Mary’s University in Nova Scotia and is an adjunct lecturer with the UMass Amherst Department of Economics where he teaches courses on the co-operative movement. The author may be contacted at erbin@nfca.coop.