Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Greenfield Recorder Publishes Article on CDI-Hosted Food Co-op Start-Up Conference

An abridged version of the story is also available on the Recorder's website.

Co-op boom: Organizers gather to discuss third wave in food co-ops

Recorder Staff

From Brooklyn, N.Y., from Morrisville, Vt., from Dorchester, from Walpole, N.H., from Chester and New London, Vt., they came to talk food co-ops. 

The gathering was a Start-up Food Co-op Development Conference Monday at the Arts Block Cafe, sponsored by national organizations to meet what organizers say is a surge in interest nationwide for starting co-ops. “It’s a third wave of co-ops forming,” said NoĆ©mi Giszpenc, executive director of the Cooperative Development Institute, one of the organizers of the event that drew about 120 people from around the region. If it was the Depression that drove people to form co-ops in the 1930s and the “natural foods” revival did so in the 1970s, Giszpenc said, “Now it’s both, because we’re in this recession, and food has gotten crazy.”

Food costs and food safety combine 
with the whole ‘Buy local’ movement and the concerns about having more 
control over knowing not only where their food comes from, but also how it’s produced, Giszpenc said.“The capital market is  no longer responsive to people’s needs, and the food industry is not responsive to people actual needs. So people want to shift their money to credit unions and they want to shift food buying to things they control and operate in ways they can agree with.”

Make no mistake. The vast majority of people still buy groceries at supermarkets, including Wal-Mart, which has become the world’s largest grocer. But there appears to be a near-doubling of the 300 or so food co-ops already operating in this country, said Giszpenc, with about 40 in the Northeast alone — including The Old Creamery Co-op in Cummington and the North Quabbin Community Co-Op in Orange.

In many cases, existing operations like Green Fields Market are helping more get started in neighboring areas — in Northampton, in Cummington and in Orange. Of the 40, 27 were represented at Monday’s day-long conference, with presentations on financial indicators and benchmarks, management, co-ops and low-income communities, raising capital and lessons learned from recent start-ups.

“People are concerned about their pocket books and about the quality of their food,” said Giszpenc, especially because of documentaries like Food, Inc. and scares over e. Coli, salmonella and other outbreaks.  Springfield and New Haven, Conn. are among those urban centers looking at creating coops, and attendees listened to presentations on how to appeal to low-income customers by accepting food stamps and offering other accommodations.

“Food co-ops have been around for 30 or 40 years, and they’ve gotten to be pretty sophisticated at marketing and good at telling their stories, and they make a huge impact in their communities,” said Stuart Reid, of Food Co-Op Initiative, another of the conference’s organizers. As people move from one area where they’ve belonged to a co-op to another place, they’re either interested in finding a new one to join or become active in trying to organize one. “It’s just a matter of co-ops being an essential part of people’s lives,” he said. 

Suzette Snow-Cobb, one of Green Fields Market’s general managers, agreed. “People who move to town or come to visit have told us they moved to Greenfield because of the co-op. When we talk to people from other areas that don’t have one, they say, ‘You guys have got something really cool here!’”

Alane Hohenberg of the Troy (N.Y.) Community Food Co-op told a workshop that its sales have consistently been one-third of what had been projected by a marketing study, because of unanticipated local-food initiatives like a midweek farmers’ market, a community garden “veggie-mobile” and other competition, but that organizers have made an outreach effort to local colleges, senior housing projects and local workplaces.

“It’s going to take farmers, farmers markets and food co-ops working together to take back our food system,” Snow-Cobb said, adding that the Greenfield store has supported the farmers market as another  way to “bring a vibrancy to town.”

“I think people are sick of the corporate takeover of their food. Co-ops are one way of sort of saying, ‘We can be part owners, we can participate in having the kind food we want,’ and co-ops have gotten better at helping get the word out about co-ops being an answer. They’re better at saying, ‘Do you want a co-op? Here’s what you can do.’ Five years ago, that wouldn’t have happened.”

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