You walk into Giant Eagle and grab a package of Philadelphia Cream Cheese, only to find out that the company that produces the savory bagel spread you have been purchasing every week is actually manufactured by Philip Morris, the world’s largest cigarette company, and you do not smoke. Perhaps you are a strict vegan, and your go-to chain grocery market does not keep the tofu you prefer in regular stock. Maybe you just want to throw back a fresh kale shot to start your day. The solution to your problems lies within the world of food cooperatives. Not only do food co-ops provide customers with a distribution center for natural foods that are locally grown, sourced, and produced but co-ops cater to the needs of their members in more ways than one. By highlighting the benefits of fresh and natural markets provided by cooperative food missions, the way that we live, think, eat, and shop can be altered in a way that can redeem the unsustainable, consumer life taken part by many.
So what is a co-op after all? A cooperative, or co-op for short, is a business that sells goods and services that benefits and supports its community members. Members democratically rule the co-op so that all can invest money, control, and then use the co-op as they wish. As of now, there are more than 29,000 co-ops in the United States with an estimated 350 million memberships held within the cooperatives as a whole. Food co-ops in particular specialize in providing the community with fresh and organic foods and products, falling under a consumer type of cooperative. Consumer co-ops are the most well known cooperatives since they operate similarly to existing business models, but instead of making a profit from their product and services, the profit goes back to their patrons and members. Now that we know what we are talking about, let us move on.
Culture Jamming as a Co-op Member
Just as Kalle Lasn, activist and co-founder of AdBusters magazine, came to find something wrong with consumerism and way that the numbing, commercial artificiality begins to take over the modern era, those who chose to become members at food cooperatives take a stand against such warning signs. Lasn is a champion of culture jamming, an act that requires a concerned citizen to effect change by standing for their rights. As consumers, we have rights that large companies tend to neglect when it comes to serving us, their customers, because of the unsustainable, consumer lifestyle Americans have come fixated upon. The defining characteristic of our American culture has become consumerism, but by breaking this brand, the individual becomes the free sovereign, rather than allowing the corporate sector holding power and reign.
As a member at a food cooperative, an individual has a voice and stake in the cooperative’s decisions and can even serve on the cooperative’s board committees. The level of member participation is entirely up to the individual, but by paying a membership fee that is an investment in shares, this makes the individual a co-owner of the cooperative. Other benefits include a discount in daily purchases, discounts on special orders, access to the co-op Federal Credit Union, voting privileges in elections, and the opportunity to volunteer at the co-op. Not only do members have a say in the decisions regarding products, supplies, and services, but by becoming an integral part of the co-op, the entire cooperative flourishes with each of its members.
When it comes to volunteering as a member, the food co-op works with you, compared to a chain grocer who makes the customer subordinate in their business practices. Working member volunteers have the opportunity to interact with shoppers, share their interest in products, learn specialized work, make connections at community events, and so much more.
Food co-ops around the United States have come to create a cooperative identity, rather than a corporate identity, that Kalle Lasn sure would support. With the seven principles of a cooperative identity to guide voluntary open membership, democratic member control, member economic participation, autonomy and independence, education, training, & information, cooperation among co-operatives, and concern for the community, the tables can be turned on the consumerist ideals that Americans have come accustomed to.
The Food Co-op benefit
Food is everywhere you go, and the industry will always be around in order to sustain human life. In terms of making a food system sustainable itself, the answer is found within supporting the local community’s food economy. It can be said that local food systems promote concern for the community by ecologically benefitting farmers and consumers alike, as well as providing improvements to systems like manufacturing practices, social inequalities, and communal initiatives. In food cooperatives specifically, producers achieve sales through sourcing locally fresh and organic foods in a consumer direct approach. Important here is the aspect of creating a food culture that is grown and produced in about a 250-mile radius, the definition of local. Items ranging from salad dressings, milk, baked goods, dietary supplements, and even magazines at the register are sourced locally in the surrounding community by food co-ops. The direct connection customers make to the local economy with their dollar further perpetuates the significance of sustaining a community within itself. Not to mention that buying locally also helps the environment to reap benefits. Because transportation costs are decreased, less packaging is used, and energies are conserved, supporting local economy conserves fossil fuels and emissions too. To exist, co-ops need employees, and by providing over 850,000 jobs at their establishments to the surrounding neighborhoods, cooperatives sustain the local economy in turn through the 74 billion dollars created through wages. As cooperatives not only provide for the community, they also give back.
The Co-op Customer Stereotype Debunked
Though many so called hippies, liberal, vegans, and vegetarians shop at food cooperatives, it is a common misconception that these are the only type of people who shop at co-ops. Rather, co-ops are intended for communal use, and available to all who grocery shop, just like anywhere else. Shoppers do not have to be members, however that option is still available. Another standing perception some have of food cooperatives is that product prices are more expensive than at chain stores, placing a high-end stigma on the idea of a co-op. However, this is not the case because the food and other products are sourced locally, which again, cuts down on transportation and packaging costs that other chain retailers incur. At many co-ops even, there is a section for bulk food and herbs allowing shoppers to take just as much or little as they need of any product, decreasing waste and cost for the customer.
Consequently enough, research shows that urban food systems can greatly benefit from connecting low-income city residents to local agriculture . Through the improvement of transportation and establishment of supermarkets in the inner city, residents can then be provided with the ability to easily access locally grown fruits, vegetables, and additional crops. The urban development of food systems is key when it comes to connecting the local food supply to the poor population of an area. With the link between consumers from all walks of life to their surrounding local and regional food systems welded back together, cooperatives become just that much more useful.
The Growth of Co-ops
The National Cooperative Business Association founded in 1916 was the first national organization to recognize cooperatives. As the NCBA has overcome the many challenges cooperatives themselves have faced, they stay true to their mission of giving cooperatives a voice through developing, advancing, and protecting co-ops. With the growth of economic development and awareness of economic direction, the NCBA has seen a great increase in the number of cooperatives that exist today. An accomplishment worthy to note is the addition of a new Internet domain-.coop- which recognizes cooperatives apart from other businesses and organizations. Since its launch, the .coop domain serves over 6,000 Internet addresses.
Pittsburgh’s Consumer-Owned Natural and Organic Market
In the Pittsburgh area specifically, the East End Food Co-op, located at 7516 Meade Street, just off Penn Avenue, is the only location in the area that is a member-owned organic food supplier. Not only does this specific cooperative supply its community with a locally sourced food market, but they also provide fair-trade bulk products, a fresh vegetarian and vegan café, gluten-free options, educational materials, and volunteering opportunities. In order to support their mission, the East End Co-op provides its customers with the opportunity to share investment, buy a membership, volunteer, dine, shop, and become educated about healthy eating, all elements of a cooperative business. After more than 30 years of growth since their establishment in 1980, the East End Food Co-op now has an estimated 10,000 members who own a stake in the Co-op.
As the food cooperative and industry builds upon itself, the constantly changing business does its best to stick to their cooperative mission in which they were founded upon. To specify, the cooperative’s mission reads as follows.
The East End Food Co-op exists to enhance the physical and social health in our community. To these ends, we will create:
1.A sustainable member-owner business open to everyone
2. An ethical and resilient food infrastructure
3. A vibrant, dynamic community of happy, healthy people
4. A creative vision to transform the future.
First hand accounts on the power of the East End Food Co-op:
On that note, I suggest you pay a visit to the East End Co-op to do some grocery shopping, and sample a kale shot at the Vegetarian Café while you are there.
 Lasn, Kalle. “Introduction,” “The Second American Revolution,” “Redefining Progress.” Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge, and Why We Must. New York: Quill, 2000. Xii+. Print.
 “Food Co-ops.” Stronger Together. Co-op, Stronger Together, 2013. Web. 14 May 2013. <http://strongertogether.coop/food-coops/co-op-values-principles/>.
 Feenstra, Gail W. “Local food systems and sustainable communities.” American journal of alternative agriculture 12.01 (1997): 28-36.
ALL IMAGES WERE TAKEN BY SARAH JUGOVIC