I was elected to Philomath City Council in November 2018, and as a councilor, I have frequently heard our residents mention their desire and the community’s need for a local grocery.
It’s a common refrain, but there do not seem to be many folks that are in a position to open and operate such a business. The city has had number of grocery businesses come and go over the years and competition with larger groceries in nearby Corvallis may create challenges for developing a salient business plan.
However, the community benefits of a grocery would extend beyond economic factors. When compared to other providers, local grocery stores may supply healthier, organic or lower-cost alternatives for food staples and value-added products. They can also contribute to a holistic community development strategy to catalyze reinvestment by other entrepreneurs.
Yet, in small communities, they also function as important hotspots for community gatherings, impromptu social interactions and information exchange.
Philomath’s growing population and thriving local business scene are indications that this could be a good time for the community to consider local grocery options. Every community is unique and has different needs, but there are plenty of small communities that do support local grocery stores.
In the absence of any apparent interest or initiative from grocery conglomerates or local entrepreneurs, I wonder if there is sufficient interest from like-minded community members to organize themselves and consider opportunities for starting a local community-owned, food cooperative?
What is a food co-op? According to Food Coop Initiative (www.fci.coop, which has many resources for starting food co-ops), a food cooperative is a business owned and controlled by the people who use it — its owners. When a group of people have similar needs, cooperatives offer one opportunity to meet those needs in an open, fair and democratic way. People are drawn to co-ops by many factors, including community building, economic justice, and/or access to healthy foods.
A cooperative has the same needs as any other business and need sufficient financing, careful market analysis, strategic and comprehensive planning, and well-trained and competent personnel. Co-ops are not immune to the market and economic forces that cause small businesses to struggle and fail.
But in several important ways, co-ops are different. Co-ops may resemble other businesses outwardly, but the fact that they are cooperatively owned makes them unique. They are owned by a community, and for that reason democracy, fairness and self-help are important foundational values that improve their bottom line.
According to Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s 2014 white paper, titled “Benefits and Impacts of Cooperatives,” cooperatives claim higher success rates than for-profit businesses. After five years, 90% of cooperatives are still operating, compared to 3% to 5% of businesses. She attributes the higher success rate to the number of interested parties working toward a shared goal.
There are many ways that food co-ops come to fruition, but it requires folks to come together to develop a shared vision, utilize their pooled talents, raise capital and institute systems to organize themselves. This assists their efforts to assess market feasibility, develop a plan and implement the plan.
However, food co-ops range from relatively simple farm stands to full-fledged supermarkets and thus range in the complexity of the overall project and the amount of the required initial investment. In their food co-op startup guide, the Food Coop Initiative encourages co-op organizers to exercise patience and to take the time to develop a solid business plan.
I suspect that there could be successful business models that do not compete with existing regional grocery or convenience markets. It seems that consumers interested in local, all natural or organic foods would be more interested in shopping at a food cooperative rather than other grocery providers.
Starting a food co-op might be perceived as a big idea for a small community, but it seems like an idea worth pursuing. Every time I sit before my community within the City Council chambers, I see a passionate and dedicated group of folks interested in affecting change in Philomath. I have heard many of them mention an interest in having a local grocery. In some cases, I have heard folks suggest that city leadership find a way to lure a grocery entrepreneur or chain to Philomath. In all honesty, I do not see how the city could make this happen without a business person approaching us to indicate an interest.
However, I have a clearer vision for Philomath community members coming together around the concepts of community building; access to healthy foods; open, fair, and democratic governance; economic justice and fairness; and self-help to form a group interested in exploring the establishment of a Philomath food co-op.
If you are interested in being connected with others that would like to pursue the idea, feel free to email me (see below) and I would be happy to connect everyone that expresses an interest. In acting together, we have the power and the ability to help feed our community’s livelihood through sustenance and in spirit.
Chas Jones is a member of the Philomath City Council. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.