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Front Page > Issues > 2003 > October

Co-ops: giving real power back to consumers

Co-operatives, or “Co-ops,” are a response to capitalism’s centralization of power with a long and rich tradition, including here in Portland. Since October is “National Co-op Month,” the Alliance decided to check in with some of Portland’s better-known examples to test the health of this movement.

By Ramona DeNies

Fred Meyer stores wildly advertise their new aisles of organic products. Wild Oats on Burnside now sells bulk sucanat instead of brown sugar, and only organic powdered sugar. Local chain New Seasons is expanding into your neighborhood and Trader Joe’s (owned by German billionaires Theo and Karl Albrecht) offers soy milk and BGH-free cheese at a tantalizingly low price.

Portland’s co-ops are looking a little co-opted these days. Local mainstays Food Front (NW Thurman) and People’s Cooperative Grocery (SE 21st), along with northeast newbie Alberta Cooperative Grocery, have sniffed change in the air. As Portland cooperatives prepare to celebrate October as National Cooperative Month, it’s hard to ignore the increasingly long shadow cast over their communities by market-sensitive national chains.

“Obviously we’re affected,” says Micki Waddell, Outreach Coordinator for the Alberta Cooperative Grocery. “The warehouse that we buy from was recently bought by United Grocers. But we have a say—we get a lot of our merchandise from local people. We can’t be completely disentangled from the corporate world, but we can try to provide a local model of living further from it.”

The growing ubiquity of local, organic, and natural food products in larger, corporate stores testifies to a broad, new consumer awareness of the food economy, and the dynamics of global supply chains and production. To some, this concern could not be more timely.

As WTO trade representatives wrangle bitterly over issues of competition, agricultural subsidies, and economic protectionism among developed nations, the oft-threatened fate of the American farmer spins on a dime with the ability of third-world farmers to “compete” with subsidized agribusiness giants like Monsanto.

“There’s an opportunity in every crisis,” says Tim Calvert, a founding member of Laughing Horse Books, a collective, and the worker-owned cooperative City Bikes. “The situation has gotten really extreme with global capitalism — people do come to the bookstore because they’re frightened. More people realize no one’s winning when you buy from Fred Meyer.”

Tim believes that voting with your dollar is the most important vote to make. Kate Cox of People’s Co-op agrees with him.

“Co-ops are the antidote to the trends of the world and the centralization of power,” says Kate. “People forget they have power as consumers to make choices.”

Adds coworker Lori Burge, “Through co-ops, we regionalize the food economy, building a secure bubble. The more people participate in that regional economy, the stronger the bubble.”

Cooperatives play a vital role in the philosophies of many movements, particularly in the struggle for a purer form of democracy. Cooperatives strive to embody the needs of their workers, consumers, and communities, and decision-making is considered the responsibility and privilege of all members. This arrangement represents the equal participation that is democracy in action, say the cooperatives, as opposed to corporate hierarchy and manipulated mass supply and demand.

“Cooperatives are potentially one democratic economic model that could help guide business decisions toward meeting human needs while honoring the needs of society and nature,” says Lee Lancaster, financial manager for Food Front.

Portland’s cooperatives are, to varying extents, plugged into the national and international cooperative community. People’s recent expansion was recently featured in the September/October issue of Cooperative Grocer, and Food Front’s general manager Holly Jarvis is presently on the board of the National Cooperative Grocer’s Association, in addition to being an active member of the Northwest Cooperative Grocer’s Association.

According to Andrea Uehara of Food Front member services, the national co-op network is comprised of 81 co-ops which annually do about 487 million dollars in business. While Food Front is the largest of Portland’s grocery co-ops, People’s recent expansion has caused an increase in sales and membership, and the Alberta Cooperative Grocery is adding staff at a steady clip. On the surface of things, it would not seem that the looming presence of national and local chains has stifled these homegrown alternatives. But Portland’s co-ops read a different message in these facts and figures—survival, rather than success. According to Reuters data, the cooperative network’s annual revenues total little more than half the 2002 revenues of Wild Oats’ 102 stores (approximately 920 million).

“I’m really proud that Food Front has been able to persevere,” Andrea says cautiously. “We’ve been fortunate that enough of the right people have been here to keep it going. People have confidence that we can continue to stay in business and stay in good spirits—and we have been.”

Erica Simon of People’s Co-op puts it more bluntly. “No one is getting rich off your money at a co-op. But that’s the economic value of shopping here—in return you support a viable alternative to the vicious cycle of bottom lines and end profits.”

Portland’s cooperatives are working more closely in recent months than they ever have. In addition to celebrating National Cooperative Month with a variety of activities later in October, the grocery co-ops have begun meeting quarterly, with some tangible results. Look soon for paper bags at each store, printed with a who’s who resource list of local cooperatives and collectives. The cooperatives plan joint advertising campaigns, information sharing, and potentially increasing leverage with distributors by combining their purchasing power.

Lee Lancaster has an even grander—and possibly more touchy—collaborative vision.

“Underneath our unique aspects, we have the same structure and principles. Welfare of our respective neighborhoods is of vital concern to us,” he says. “Food co-ops were started to provide local, organic produce. Now with those things more mainstream, the demand is going up, and our share of that market is declining. We have to reevaluate.”

Lee says the traditional independence and decentralization of U.S. cooperatives has inhibited them from impacting the food industry through economies of scale as they might if better organized.

“What if we could work with other co-ops to nurture and establish other cooperatives? In essence, this is an extension of neighborhood organizing,” says Lee. “If you can provide a living for local farmers through the increased demand of our combined presence, that’s good for everybody.”

The tricky part of collaboration among cooperatives, he admits, is avoiding the sort of centralized authority that cooperatives, by their nature, seek to refute. Lee thinks cooperation, rather than integration, in matters ranging from financials and sharing of best practices to community fundraising and politicking provides the key.

“It does help lift the timbers if you‚ve got a lot of folk,” he says. “We’re all driven by competition from national chains, but in looking at national issues and realizing there’s a lot to address, what’s needed is a bigger movement, not a big corporation.”

Ramona DeNies is a writer, and Portland Alliance volunteer.


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Last Updated: January 29, 2003