by Alex Gyori
The year 1975 was an exciting one for our town, and most locals never realized it. It was the moment when the Brattleboro Food Co-op purveyed its first delivery of wholesome food. The ensuing years proceeded to count off quickly, with planning already under way for the Co-op’s 40th birthday next year! I would like to reflect upon how BFC, largely unbeknownst to itself, was in fact a vital part of a cooperative movement that has grown to unambiguous importance in many people’s lives.
Natural food co-ops, the new kids in the neighborhoods, had to work hard to gain the attention and respect needed to run their roots deep into their communities. Brattleboro’s food co-op took form first as a buying club, as was the case with hundreds of its sister food co-ops around the country. During the next fleeting years it was lovingly and sometimes awkwardly nurtured into a small and funky yet cherished community store. For staff, learning to run such a store was not readily apparent, though. After all, artists, mathematicians, teachers, and builders, along with many other people with disparate talents, were engaged in the process! This situation set the stage for the next collaborative step forward.
Few outside resources existed then. The National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA) entered vaguely into the consciousness of co-op members when early iterations of the NCBA-sponsored Consumer Cooperative Management Association’s yearly conference became a point on our learning curve. As co-op board members and managers got to know one another at these national gatherings, geographically proximate food co-ops started to link up. In a short time, ten independent regional associations formed. It was almost inevitable that visionary co-op leaders would soon take the ten to the next logical place, a National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA). It was an energetic first attempt to provide germane and consequential assistance to natural food co-ops by tapping into the talents of the co-op community. A loosely formed association, it was in the end only another step. The NCGA Board of Directors launched a major reorganization campaign to create a more dynamic and worthwhile entity. Taking about two years from start to finish, the effort ended in success.
Structured into three corridors—west, central, and east—today’s NCGA is a strong, burgeoning organization providing an increasingly broad range of resources needed to help communities all over the nation establish and grow local food co-ops to meet a variety of needs. Apart from providing a forum for peer-to-peer sharing of ideas and best practices, NCGA brings $1 billion in the aggregated sales volume of 130 food co-ops representing 165 individual stores to the bargaining table to help create more favorable supply contracts with United Natural Foods, the current main supplier of natural foods for co-ops, as well as with trade service vendors of equipment, store design, credit-card processing, food processing supplies, and linen services. Professional development seminars and workshops offer a panoply of training opportunities for co-op staff as well. Through NCGA, food co-ops are recognized more and more as significant players in the national discussions about critical food issues such as organic rules, the Farm Bill, and currently, GMOs.
In 2009 the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed 2012 to be the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives. More than just a celebration, it was a highly significant milestone in the evolution of economic structures in the world. Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, declared that “cooperatives are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility.” Not content to let the importance of this celebration fade away, the International Cooperative Alliance sponsored a continuation of the Year of Cooperatives by creating a Blueprint for a Co-operative
Decade. Its declared goal is that by 2020, the cooperative form of business will have become the acknowledged leader in economic, social, and environmental sustainability; the model preferred by people; and the fastest growing form of enterprise.
The product of a small, humble venture located on the dirt-floor basement of the Green Mountain Health Center, the Brattleboro Food Co-op continues to be a participant in a larger, I would dare to say, epic movement to create a new world, one that is a healthy place for all people. Let us celebrate that, in hopeful appreciation.
Did you know?
- Cooperatives have 1 billion members around the world.
- In India the consumer needs of 67% of rural households are covered by cooperatives.
- 40% of African households belong to a cooperative.
- 300 largest cooperatives had a combined annual revenue of $1.6 trillion in 2008.