By Matthew Cardinale
ATLANTA, Georgia, Jan 31 (IPS) – With more and more communities in the U.S. South turning to cooperatives as a way to produce and consume food in a sustainable manner, several cooperatives are hoping to expand on what they view as more than just a "shopping experience" but a way of life.
One such co-op is Sevananda Natural Foods Market, located in Atlanta, Georgia, which has been in business for 37 years.
Sevananda is planning several programmes to recognise the International Year of Cooperatives, including 'monthly mixers' throughout the year, according to Holly Blain, member services manager; Tom Pawlenko, general manager; and Ahzhah Simons, advertising and marketing manager, who participated in a group phone interview with IPS, because, they said, 'we try to do everything cooperatively.'
The mixers are 'an opportunity for us to extend the relationships we have with members beyond the shopping experience,' Simons said.
Sevananda has over 4,000 members, but unlike some co-ops, also makes its food available to the general public. The co-op members get to share in the grocery store's profits and take part in electing the board of directors.
The mixers will feature presentations by wellness partners and board members; artist alliance members who will do performances; as well as sampling of vegetarian foods, raw foods, and different styles of cooking. They will run though October, which is co-op month.
Simons also hosts a weekly half-hour radio programme on WRFG 89.3 FM, on which she highlights local regional and global co-ops, as well as industry leaders from such groups as the National Cooperative Business Association, the National Cooperative Bank, the National Cooperative Grocers Association, and the International Cooperative Alliance.
Blain has seen more co-ops open in the U.S. within the last year than during the last two decades since the co-op movement got started. Blain sees a growing co-op movement nationwide. But she says the next five to 10 years will prove whether they will become sustainable.
Many co-ops, Blain said, are 'still limited in scope of what they cover, the type of products, and how often during the year they may be open.'
'When we can share these (wholesale) prices among 300 people, it's easy to get people in on that,' she said.
'Most of it has to do with community aspects. Thousands of people band together to provide for each other, it's kind of this big joint thing to provide better services and better products,' Pawlenko said.
'As the idea of community has been fractured by so many people not living where you grew up, you make your family where you are,' Blain said.
'I can tell we have something in common because we're both shopping here. You can have a conversation around the apple stand – you never know where it could end up. It's an intentional community around food,' she said.
Simons says the benefits of co-ops are 'the freedom people have to create this entity around whatever they're interested, to serve some greater purpose or need, the theology around it. Outside the co-op, the way of the world, there's a winner and a loser. In co-ops, there's win-wins. When you come together, you create this magnificent thing you could never have had on your own.'
'It's an alternative way of thinking. I think people are attracted to that because of what they've seen in the status quo, in international business structures,' Simons said.
People are saying, 'We no longer want to give money to Benton, Arkansas, so we're not going to shop at Wal-Mart,' Blain said, adding there are about a hundred local and regional vendors who carry products at Sevananda.
Meanwhile, one of the newer co-ops, Truly Living Well Natural Urban Farms, now owns six sites throughout Georgia, including four in Atlanta, one in East Point, and one in Fayetteville. TLW has been rapidly growing and expanding. It is planning to open a seventh location in 2012.
TLW uses a Community Supported Agriculture Subscription (CSA) model which is a type of cooperative.
'Ours is a little bit different. A subscription entitles you to 13 pick-ups any time (during one year). We sell half-share and full- share. We only ask that you don't can it and don't freeze it,' Rashid Nuri, founder and president of TLW, told IPS.
'What we do is lay the food on the table, take what you want and as much as you want,' Nuri said. TLW members grow all the food themselves, all in urban settings.
TLW has also set ambitious goals for 2012.
'We're going to have a training programme, a summer camp. We will have classes, better outreach. Start bringing vendors in and allowing them to sell. Continue to have markets twice a week. Expand upon what we've already done. Plant more fruit trees and see if we can feed more people this year than we did last year,' Nuri said.
Another goal is to 'create more jobs. We paid over 40 people last year,' Nuri said.
The main benefits of cooperatives can be summed up as 'people working with people, people sharing with people,' Nuri said.
On Dec. 18, 2009, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 64/136, designating 2012 as the International Year of Cooperatives. The theme of the international year is 'Cooperative Enterprise Builds a Better World.'
Last July, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution 'Designating the year of 2012 as the 'International Year of Cooperatives' by unanimous consent. It was sponsored by Tim Johnson, a Democrat from South Dakota, and had 30 co-sponsors, enjoying wide bipartisan support.
There are more than 29,000 cooperatives with 120 million members in the U.S., according to the bill.
U.S. cooperatives generate two million jobs, and contribute annual sales of 652 billion dollars to the U.S. economy, it notes.