I’m on the board of directors of a local start-up food co-op. We live in a small, rural, not-very-densely populated community. We have no grocery store.
Despite some recent efforts on our town to lure in commercial activity, the big chain stores just won’t come here. When they plug our income and population numbers into their algorithm, they don’t project that our area could make them the profit that they need. We’re not talking fancy, high-end grocery stores here: my town can’t even seal the deal on a Kroger.
So, four years ago, some people got together, decided that they were tired of buying butter from the 7-11, and founded a cooperative. Consumer co-op models vary, but they all come down to a few basic principles: co-ops are community-owned by members who have a vested share in the business. They’re run democratically, and all profits are either reinvested in the store or paid out in dividends to members.
Seems like a humble goal, right? A small full service grocery store. How quaint. Our area has has rich agricultural heritage, so we can picture the store being an outlet for locally produced stuff as well as dry goods or other grocery sundries (right now, most of our local producers take their wares to the big Saturday farm markets in the ‘burbs). The cooperative model is appealing, too, in a place that fails to draw in the big box stores, but could possibly support a store with a smaller footprint.
Fast forward to now. We have about 450 members, which, although it may sound small, is equivalent to about one-quarter of our town’s population. This represents a huge amount of grassroots organizing, all by volunteers. We have good support, at the community level, from local producers, from our town government, and even from other communities.
This is no cutesy Kickstarter campaign, though. Rural food co-ops are very rare, and for good reason. Grocery stores have a notoriously small profit margin: around 3%. And that’s for the big chain stores, the ones who have economies of scale and who are in the business of making grocery stores. And who are not run by a bunch of volunteers. Some of the most successful or famous co-ops (think of Park Slope Food Co-op, in Brooklyn) are in urbanized areas, where you can rely on population density to support the business.
But here is the best and worst thing about cooperative business models: if you don’t have enough community support, you simply won’t go forward. Since members have a vested interest in co-op success, you have to be able to bank (literally and figuratively) heavily on that success as you move forward, because you have an obligation to them.
So we’re at a pivotal point right now. We’ve done our market studies and we have really scary financial spreadsheets and we have some money in the bank. We’re working on finding a site out of some of the very few commercially zoned spaces in town. We paid for a well known co-op consultant to help us plan.
Anyway, all of this background and throat clearing* is to preface my main point, which is to say that: I’ve wanted to write about the co-op over the past four years of being involved with it, but I find it difficult, because I’m so close to the nitty gritty of it; so close to the grind of organizing and constantly trying to convince people that having a grocery store won’t happen without them. In thinking about sales per square foot and lease-or-buy scenarios. In responding to the question, “when are you opening, anyway?” It doesn’t make for pretty pictures of vegetables. In fact, most of our co-op photos are people sitting around tables at meetings and hunched over laptops.
It’s increasingly clear to me that the more pleasant tasks of food, agriculture, and systems of food distribution are not the ones that create change. The long-haul, much less glamorous work of alternate means of production and distribution is really difficult, and looks much more like business or advocacy or (yawn) research than it does like picking up a quart of June strawberries from the roadside stand.
My town has no stop lights. Our main businesses are places like a 7-11, a gun shop, a pizza joint, and a restaurant called Bonnie’s Country Kitchen. When we did an initial market survey, we found out that a lot of people do their grocery shopping at the Super Walmart that is 17 miles away. We are a strange pocket of small-town farmers and commuters and families on the edge of a county that, at its opposite end, houses Dulles Airport and government contractors. We are not the hippest place in the world, but we aren’t totally distanced from reality.
Do I think that having a community-owned grocery store will be an asset to our area? Absolutely, and that’s why I dedicate my time to it.
But I am also driven by anxiety: if we can’t succeed in an area that is reasonably affluent, white, and has plenty of people interested in having a local food outlet, what chance does a community who looks different than us have? What chance does anyone have?
My community and this work is unique in some ways, but our situation is probably more common than we realize—it’s just a story that’s seldom told. Access is a multifaceted issue, and while availability of food starts with production, distribution is important, too.
I think a lot about how if success stories all look and sound the same, then they’re probably not all that successful. The world is big and diverse, so if the narrative starts looking similar from place to place, if all the magazine articles are about rooftop gardens and microgreens, then there must be something we’re missing. This is how I feel about food and food culture nowadays. We are so one-note, so addicted to the same narratives, over and over again. It’s a little exhausting, and creates an environment where we may miss opportunities.
But I’m willing to keep trying to discern the different stories, to imagine what it might look like for our little town, with all its idiosyncrasies, to support a grocery store. We need more people who will buy into our vision, and I’m not sure who all of them are yet. But we keep working, keep moving forward, because if not that, what else?
In the meantime, it’s June, and there is strawberry sorbet.
Adapted just barely from Deborah Madison’s Local Flavors
This strawberry sorbet is just strawberries and sugar. Okay, and a little lemon. Still, it’s a frozen dessert with much less work involved then full-on ice cream. I rarely make sorbet, and am always surprised by how good it is. A nice way to enjoy the season’s first strawberries.
- 1 quart ripe strawberries (for me, by weight this was about 1 1/2 pounds after being hulled (685 grams))
- 2/3 cup sugar
- Zest and juice of one lemon, tangerine, or orange
- Fresh mint leaves, optional
- Wash and hull the strawberries. (To hull, stick a paring knife into the top of each berry and cut in a circle around the leaves, removing both leaves and hull. This way you don’t lose the strawberries’ pretty red “shoulders”.)
- In a saucepan, combine sugar, juice, and zest. Bring just to a boil and cook, stirring, until the sugar is fully dissolved (if you rub a drop of the syrup between your fingers, you should feel no grains of sugar). Remove from heat.
- Purée the strawberries in a food processor or with an immersion blender in a high sided bowl.
- Stir the syrup into the strawberry purée.
- Process the mixture in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions, usually around 15-20 minutes.
- The sorbet will be set but very soft. It can be eaten immediately, or smoothed into a sealed container and frozen to be scooped later.
- If freezing, remove the container in which the sorbet is frozen from the freezer 10 minutes before serving to soften.
- Garnish with mint if desired.
* I owe Cheryl Sternman Rule for giving me the perfect language to describe the hmphing and unnecessary description that goes on in the first few paragraphs of a lot of writing. Thanks, Cheryl!