Food co-ops became popular during the past decade as an alternative to supermarkets and retail natural food stores. What draws people to them are lower prices, democratic participation, friendly atmosphere, higher quality, and other factors. A number of books and articles have appeared extolling the virtues of co-ops, but very little of a critical nature has been written.

The precedent and concept of citizens banding together for their common good is deeply rooted in classical and modern democratic theory. Co-ops can provide an arena for people to develop new modes of self-expression in the workplace and marketplace. Because of the absence of profit-oriented boards of directors and the usual boss/worker dichotomy, as well as the participatory nature of the co-op organization, there is more space for people to work through such issues as collectivism, sexism, and meritocracy and develop a more humane, creative working and buying environment (which fosters human growth over profit and control).

Food co-ops are in an especially good position to buy directly from farmers on a large scale and thereby encourage local food consumption and organic farming, while still keeping prices down for co-op members. Since co-ops don’t need to appeal to a mass market, they have more freedom to boycott certain products for political, nutritional, and ecological reasons as well as engage in consumer and nutrition education.

They also have great potential in teaching us to assertively exercise control over running, as well as caring for the co-ops, which corporate America has taught us not to do. If a jar breaks in Fowlers, no problem — a clerk comes and cleans it up. One of the big challenges of co-op organization is to teach us that it is really our jar and what are we (as an individual and a group) going to do about it? It is difficult for many people to bring their own bags, weigh their own food, clean up, wait a little longer, and inquire about certain foods they want; this difficulty teaches us a lot about why food prices are so high in many stores (with scales, bags, lots of clerks) and how much we have been separated from the process of acquiring our daily bread.

My experience with the Community Food Co-op and a number of co-ops I have visited across the country is that there is a lack of clarity as to why the co-op exists and exactly how it is, and might be, different from more conventional businesses: Too often co-opers (myself included) engage in a holy crusade against evil, who might be food distributors, capitalism, or what have you. This struggle, as well as the preoccupation with cheaper food, can easily overshadow many of the innovative directions co-ops could take, and lead people to believe they are in every way different from conventional businesses, which is clearly not the case.

The issue of cheaper food is especially problematic since it often distracts people from getting to the roots of why food prices are so high to begin with, such as multi-national control of food production and distribution, transporting food over thousands of miles, eating high on the food chain (just to name a few). Too often, this quest for cheaper food is another desire to reap a profit for ourselves without considering the long range stability of the co-op, regional warehouses, and funds necessary for community education.

Co-ops at their worst can be temporary businesses where a number of people acquire cheaper food at the expense of employees who are underpaid and who gain no fringe benefits such as health and unemployment insurance. Personally, this would not bother me in a vibrant organization where everybody was putting in some energy and there was a real sense of growth and exchange. In other situations it is exploitation. Co-ops and alternative businesses can only survive in the long run if they provide workers with a decent income and some small degree of job security and stability. The pattern I have observed over the years is people working for peanuts for a few years, developing a great deal of expertise and business savvy, and then leaving the co-op or alternative business so they can pay their bills. The real challenge to co-ops is to develop as institutions which can serve the community while doing business more consciously than is usual. This means developing equity, paying insurance and adequate wages, expanding while at the same time keeping prices down, educating consumers, and developing an innovative work environment.

Some of the older supermarket co-ops have also disappointed me. I visited the food co-ops in Hanover, New Hampshire this summer and except for a sparse amount of FDA type nutritional information, a bulletin board, and slightly lower prices, there was no way for me to tell that I was not in a regular supermarket. High sugar and fat food abounded and workers looked just as bored as the local check-out clerk. It was agribusiness, co-op style. One justification usually given for this style co-op is that this is what people want. My answer is that we are not living in some natural ecology where wants match inner needs. Since we were children, agribusiness and Madison Avenue have been pushing unhealthy, high-profit foods on us, and meat producers have been giving us steak filled with hormones and antibiotics so they could reap higher profits.

If co-op supermarkets are going to carry nutritionally questionable foods (using standards no different from the corporately-controlled and influenced USDA and FDA) there is an ethical responsibility to do more consumer education. There is a great deal of violence and aggression in denying people what they want; there is also a great deal of violence and aggression in providing them with foods you clearly believe to be unhealthy. Skillful action is finding the balance, the middle way, the path of non-aggression.

A number of co-ops across the country are quite dynamic and impressive. They are places I support and would like to be part of some day. What I have been trying to break down here is the myth that co-ops are somehow special because they call themselves co-ops, hold meetings, and have somewhat lower prices. Co-ops as well as privately owned businesses (on a manageably small scale) can be creative and cutting forces in shaping a new society; the advantage of the co-op is that it can focus more on democratic participation. But privately-owned businesses also do a lot in terms of nutritional education, developing more growth oriented working environments and so on.

Co-ops need to free themselves from fixed ideas of what is right and start to examine the deeper goals behind a consciously-run alternative business.