Food Cooperatives

views updated


FOOD COOPERATIVES. Food cooperatives represent a particular subset of a larger environment of cooperative businesses. Cooperative business enterprises are primarily distinguished from other forms of business organization by the fact that their members consider other goals to be more important than return on invested capital. In its Statement of Identity, the International Cooperative Alliance defines a cooperative as "an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise."

Several characteristics commonly typify a cooperative enterprise. These characteristics, based on values that are made explicit to (and by) their members, include:

Autonomy: the cooperative is as independent of government and private enterprise as possible;

Association of persons: the definition deliberately does not read an "association of individuals";

Voluntary: members are free to join and leave at will, within the purposes and resources of the cooperative;

Meet needs: the central purpose of the cooperative is to meet member needs, which can be purely economic or social and cultural;

Joint ownership and democratic control: the members own the cooperative on a mutual basis. Decisions are made democratically by the members and are not controlled by capital or by government;

Enterprise: the cooperative is an organized entity that typically functions in the marketplace and engages in the exchange of goods and services.

There are over three hundred food cooperatives in the United States today. Through food cooperatives, consumers have sought to improve the quality and nutrition of available foods, to become better educated about food and environmental issues as they pertain to food choice, and to create a marketplace for organically grown foods. Food cooperatives often have mission statements that support such goals. For example, Puget Consumers Cooperative, based in Seattle, Washington (the largest food cooperative in the United States) has as its mission statement, "to provide the highest quality natural foods and products. We create and cultivate the marketplace for locally grown and organic products and are a vital community resource on food, nutrition and environmental issues."


The concept of cooperation germinated in the middle 1800s during the early period of industrialization. A small group of weavers in Rochdale Village, England, is considered to be the first practical application of the concept. There, in 1844, twenty-eight weavers combined their skills and ambitions, agreeing to share the burdens and rewards of a self-supporting economic colony. Other examples of co-ops appeared in the late 1800s throughout England and Europe, particularly in Finland.

It is not clear which consumer co-op in the United States was the first. According to one source, it was a buying club for household supplies created in 1844. Another source claims that the first consumer cooperative in the United States was established in Philadelphia in 1862. Whichever was actually the "first," the popularity of consumer cooperatives has tended to increase in waves coincident with periods of economic decline (the Great Depression) and political and consumer unrest (the 1960s). What is now referred to as the "old wave" of growth in the number of cooperatives in the 1930s was inspired largely by economic depression. The cooperative was viewed by the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations as an "American concept" and as a solution to the suffering farming industry. But with the improved war-oriented economy of the 1940s, support waned for co-ops and the philosophies that went with them. The impetus for the most recent expansion ( the "new wave") of American cooperatives in the relatively prosperous 1960s lay in a desire to harness and enhance social capital, build community, and achieve local autonomy from an increasingly global food system. In the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, food cooperatives were viewed as a political as well as economic alternative to conventional supermarkets.

Co-Op Values and Principles

From the earliest days of the Rochdale Pioneers, food cooperatives have emphasized the importance of honest dealings in the marketplace: accurate measurements, reliable quality, and fair prices. Members have insisted that their co-op have honest dealings with them. Ideally, this has led to honest dealings with nonmembers and a unique level of openness throughout the organization.

Since its creation in 1895, the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) has been recognized as the authority for defining cooperatives and for determining the underlying principles that provide motivation for such enterprises. One of the major purposes of the ICA is to "promote and protect cooperative values and principles."

Three formal statements of the cooperative principles have been made by the ICAin 1937, 1966, and 1995. Each statement was carefully crafted to adopt and explain principles that were both relevant to and of value for the contemporary world. The latest statement of principles reflects substantial changes in the global economy, in international political alignments, in the economic development of Asia, Africa and Latin America, and in the worldwide human condition. These changes brought new challenges and opportunities to cooperatives worldwide. Some traditional cooperative assumptions were challenged, giving rise to new interpretations of cooperative values and inspiring a reconsideration of the role of cooperative enterprise in the twenty-first century and in societies undergoing rapid change.

Cooperative values. Cooperative values reflect convictions that these enterprises hold about how to achieve a better society and what form that society should take. Common values among food co-ops include: Self-help: People have the will and the capability to improve their destiny peacefully through joint action, which can be more powerful than individual effort, particularly through collective action in the market. Democracy: Members have the right to participate, to be informed, to be heard and to be involved in making decisions. Members are the source of all authority in the cooperative. Equality: Equal rights and opportunities for people to participate democratically will improve the use of society's resources and foster mutuality, understanding, and solidarity. Equity: Fair distribution of income and power in society and its economic life should be based on labor, not ownership of capital. Solidarity: Cooperatives are based on the assumption that there is strength in mutual self-help and that the cooperative has a collective responsibility for the well-being of its members.

The 1995 cooperative principles. Principles are guidelines for putting ideals and values into practice. If successful, principles are incorporated into the organizational culture of the cooperative; they are the broad vision statement for cooperatives and cooperators individually and collectively.

Seven ICA principles (revised from the 1966 statement and adopted in 1995) in abbreviated form are:

  1. Voluntary and Open Membership: Cooperatives are voluntary organizations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.
    Participation as active and responsible members should be based on a clear understanding of the values for which cooperatives stand and on support for those values.
  2. Democratic Member Control: Cooperatives are democratic organizations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting policies and decision-making. Members of these societies should enjoy equal voting rights (one member, one vote) and participation in decisions affecting their societies.
  3. Member Economic Participation: The economic benefits arising out of the operations of a society belong to the members of that society and should be distributed in such a manner as to avoid one member gaining at the expense of others. This may be accomplished by the following means: (a) by provision for development of the cooperative's business; (b) by provision of common services; or (c) by distribution among members in proportion to their transactions with the society.
  4. Autonomy and Independence: This principle emphasizes that cooperatives must be free of intervention from governments or other sources so that ultimately the members are able to control their own destiny.
  5. Education, Training, and Information: Education is a priority in cooperative enterprises. Education here is meant to be more than advertising products or distributing information. Rather, it means engaging the minds of members, elected leaders, managers, and employees of food co-ops in critical thinking regarding food, nutrition, health, and the food system.
  6. Cooperation among Cooperatives: All cooperative enterprises, in order to best serve the interests of their members and their communities, should actively cooperate in every practical way with other cooperatives at local, national, and international levels.
  7. Concern for Community: Grounded in the values of social responsibility and caring for others, this principle (added in the 1995 revision of ICA principles) articulates an interest in making contributions to a better society at large. By taking ownership over portions of the economy, cooperative members are saying, in effect, we can meet our needs and the needs of others better than they are currently being met. Because the effort is a mutual one, cooperative members understand that to provide for any member is to provide for all members.

The Food Co-Op Shopper

Consumer research conducted in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s indicated important differences between food cooperative shoppers and their supermarket counterparts. Areas of difference included food-related behaviors; attitudes toward food and food safety, health, nutrition, and the food system; and political views. Food-related behaviors studied included dietary patterns and cooking habits. Food co-op shoppers were shown to buy items such as tofu, brown rice, alfalfa sprouts, honey, dried beans, yogurt, granola, and spinach with greater frequency than supermarket shoppers. Supermarket shoppers, on the other hand, tended to consume franks, beef, poultry, pork, white bread, white rice, candy bars, and potatoes with more frequency than co-op shoppers. Food co-op shoppers tended to have a greater enjoyment of cooking and to cook "from scratch" more often than the general population. This is consistent with a strong skepticism toward heavily processed foods associated with food co-op shoppers, particularly in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Environmental concern and concern over food system issues such as globalization, genetic engineering, and corporatization are more meaningful to food co-op members than nonmembers. Co-op shoppers also tend to put relatively less importance on year-round availability of produce items.

Over the years, consumers have been motivated by several factors to join and shop at food co-ops. Research from the 1970s suggests that lower prices, availability of natural foods, and product quality were dominant motivating factors for joining a food cooperative. Support for co-op values, economic and ecological interests, freshness of the food, the availability of locally grown food, social atmosphere, variety of products, and the availability of bulk items are additional motivators for co-op shoppers.

The growth of food cooperative membership observed in the 1970s and 1980s is thought to stem in part from concerns about food safety and the impacts processed foods may have on health as well as an increasing awareness of the diet and health relationship. The use of whole and organic foods among coop shoppers may be related more to the desire to decrease control of large companies and food processors and a sense of increased personal responsibility than to the nutritional value of such products. Access to bulk items, herbs and spices, organic foods, farm-fresh eggs and preservative-free bread were incentives for shopping at the cooperative. Co-op shoppers believed that organically grown foods possess beneficial nutritional attributes, and they were willing to pay a higher price for them. This preference was largely motivated by a belief that pesticide residues in foods posed a health risk. They also felt that there are environmental factors other than food processing that are harmful to health and to the environment.

Establishing a Niche

From their beginning, consumer food co-ops have distinguished themselves from traditional food retailing by establishing active consumer education programs designed to increase awareness and understanding not only of food composition, but of the source of food and the production methods used. Co-op policies often reflect the values related to food and the marketplace that members consider to be important, such as a diverse product line that emphasizes quality, nutrition, and organic growing methods, health and nutrition awareness through education of members and staff, and shared participation by the staff in co-op decision-making.

Goals common to most food cooperatives include democracy, member education and participation, and a dedication to "pure" or "natural" foods. The latter goal in particular created the expectation that food cooperatives were places where natural foods could be found, and further defined the niche of these retail outlets. However, the demand for natural and organically grown foods is increasing dramatically, and shoppers are able to find these foods in a wide range of retail and wholesale food outlets.

Modern Trends

Food cooperatives continue to constitute a very small proportion of the food-retailing segment. As the availability of organic produce and multi-ingredient processed products has expanded throughout the food-retailing industry, and as supermarket chains have initiated active consumer education programs, the characteristics that distinguish food cooperatives as unique alternatives have become less clear. Expanded availability of "whole foods" and certified organic foods means that food cooperatives are no longer exclusive sources for these choices. However, these food-retailing enterprises may still provide important alternatives to supermarket chains. For example, food cooperatives still provide a space for debating agriculture and food system trends that is difficult to find in other institutions. Decisions about inventory are based less on market demand than on established goals, values, politics, and principles. Also, cooperatives still provide an atmosphere of community that is not found in more conventional supermarkets and megastores. In the past, food cooperatives have been innovators in the marketplace in the areas of unit pricing, consumer protection, and nutritional labeling. They may offer innovations in the future that are adopted throughout the retail industry. Finally, recent trends in food retailing in the United States and elsewhere may serve to renew interest and participation in food cooperatives. Food retailing, like agricultural production before it, is increasingly concentrated. Warehouse food stores and mass retailers with grocery sections are gaining market share in some of the most profitable categories of food products and capturing the food expenditure of families with children, who comprise the most lucrative segment of the shopping public. This threat to the traditional grocery store may provide an opportunity for food cooperatives to offer an alternative food store that, by their very nature, are resistant to such trends.

See also Distribution of Food ; Food Marketing: Alternative (or Direct) Strategies ; Natural Foods ; Retailing of Food .


Fjeld, C. R., R. Sommer, F. D. Becker, and J. Warholic. "Nutrition Knowledge and Preferences of Food Cooperative Shoppers. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 82, 4 (1983): 389393.

Fjeld, C. R., J. Storer, J. Warholic, R. Sommer, and F. D. Becker. "Food Intake Frequencies of Food Co-op Shoppers." Journal of Nutrition Education, 16, 3 ( 1984): 142144.

Ehlers, K. M., and H. Fox. "Food Cooperative Shoppers: Nutrition Knowledge, Attitudes, and Concerns." Journal of the American Dietetic Association 80 (1982): 160162.

Hennessy, T. "Fresh Ideas." Progressive Grocer. March 2000: 8591.

Kahn, Barbara E., and Leigh McAlister. Grocery Revolution: The New Focus on the Consumer. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1997.

Kreitner, P. "Research: Who Shops Co-op, and Why?" The New Harbinger 3 (1973): 117.

Jennifer L. Wilkins