The power of community-owned food stores in the age of grocery giants

With British Food Fortnight ready to start, what lessons can we learn from grocery co-ops in North America?

“If we want to have a long-term grocery store that supplies communities with good food, the most resilient model is the co-op model,” says Jon Steinman, author, broadcaster and member of the Kootenay Co-op, a consumer food co-op in Nelson, British Colombia (BC), Canada.

Fifteen years ago Mr Steinman moved to Nelson, starting a show about food at the local co-op radio station; Deconstructing Dinner evolved into a television and web series exploring the realities of where food comes from. He then joined the Kootenay Co-op, where he spent 10 years on the board and witnessed first-hand the positive impact co-ops can have on the local community.

“Over those 10 years, our big focus was to build a new store,” he says. “We took the plunge and became the developer of a four-storey building, which became the city’s largest new development in recent history.”

Jon Steinman, whose new book, Grocery Story, will be published in 2019

The top three floors of the building now comprise 54 residential units, with the ground floor occupied by commercial units.

Here, the Kootenay Co-op sits in a space three times the size of its previous location, with a full sized commercial kitchen, deli, cheese shop, frozen fish section and an in-store restaurant.

“We moved in over December,” says Mr Steinman. “Through the whole process, I was inspired by how a local food store can engage in significant development in a community. It’s brought more engagement to downtown – and showed the power of a grocery store to support a local economy. This was a story that wanted to be told.”

Mr Steinman plans to tell this story through a new book, Grocery Story, which was successfully funded through Kickstarter in August, which will look at how local economies are positively impacted by community food co-ops.

As well as exploring the challenges they face, Grocery Story will include profiles of food co-ops in the US and Canada and discuss the unique ways they engage with communities – from operating their own farms and non-profits to educational engagement with members and local schools.

The benefits of going local

National Co+op Grocers – the business services co-operative for retail co-op grocery stores – has already done work tracking the benefits of using the co-op model. In North America, grocery co-ops have a higher rate of organic produce sales (82% compared with 12% for conventional privately or investor-owned stores), higher average earnings ($14.31 compared with $13.35) and better rates of recycling (74% of food waste against 36%).

Inside the Kootenay store

Of greatest interest to Mr Steinman is local impact. Consumer-owned co-ops work with an average of 157 local producers (65 for conventional stores), around 20% of products sold are locally sourced (6% for conventional stores) – and 38% of revenue is spent locally (compared with 24%).

At the Kootenay Co-op, where annual sales top C$14m, $3.5 of purchasing is from local suppliers – with $2m of that directed to farmers. “The book will also share the stories of some of these suppliers,” says Mr Steinman.

“When local producers sell to the local co-op, where does that money then go within the local community, from hairdresser to lawyers? Through co-ops, we can see food dollars recirculating through local communities.”

  • This focus on British Food is supported by East of England Co-op, the largest independent retailer in East Anglia with more than 230 branches across Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire. It runs a wide range of businesses, including food retail, funeral, travel, pharmacy, Post Offices, opticians and investment property. It is owned by more than 288,000 members and in 2017 members shared a dividend of more than £3 million.
  • Find more coverage on co-ops and British Food Fortnight here.
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