How groceries can save rural America

I’ve wrapped up finals, and caught myself up on the other things that needed doing, and now it’s time to get back to the blog. There is no shortage of material, and in the near future you can expect to read about: workplace democracy, why credit unions are better than banks, why a credit union has gone into the used car business, the joys of tool sharing, and how cooperatives might be able to help with California’s endless financial train wreck. By the time I crank those out, there will certainly be more news to digest. The economic crisis is out of the headlines, but don’t think that the show is over. Not just yet…

Today I want to address rural food co-ops. Many people, especially in cities with natural food co-ops, think that this is the only way to do a food co-op. Some even call any natural food store “the co-op,” even if it is owned by Wall Street. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The current state of affairs in the US is the exception to the rule, that communities naturally organize cooperatively to meet their basic food needs when the market fails to deliver. All that is needed is the idea, the leadership, and of course the investment. It is a challenge, but it is possible, and sometimes essential to the survival of a community. If you don’t believe that a struggling rural economy can pull this off, please read on.

A friend just shared with me an article from the April 6 issue of People magazine about the Walsh Community Grocery Store. This small town in the southeastern corner of Colorado lost its grocery store when an absentee investor went out of business in 2006 (and only a month after the pharmacy went belly-up). That meant a 20-mile drive to buy food. The town endured this inconvenience for months before a pair of blizzards cut them off and showed them that their town’s life was at stake. So they organized to reopen the store, and now the store has more than 300 co-owners, out of a local population of 723.

An earlier article in the Denver Post opens with a provocative statement that buying a jar of peanut butter anywhere else becomes an act of treason.” That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but with nearly half of the individuals (and presumably all but a few households) invested in the business, there must be a fiercely loyal customer base. And now that people are shopping for groceries in Walsh again, they are less likely to be tempted by other out of town businesses that compete with the local enterprises that remain.

This is good news, of course, but it’s especially good that People –which is known for features other than its insightful reporting of positive economic solutions – has joined the effort to spread the good news about how people can work together to address the bad news that is all around us. It is also good when more “progressive” publications cover this, but I don’t think that Utne Reader is likely to show up in small-town doctors’ waiting rooms, where it is needed most.

Walsh is not unique. Several towns in the upper Midwest have already responded cooperatively to the loss of their grocery stores. Some might write that off as some Scandanavian tendency toward communal strucutres, and indeed there is a great history of Norse and Swedes and Finns organizing cooperatively. The Finnish-American community was particularly prolific in the last century, eventually opening 175 stores including the Iron River Co-op in Wisconsin. These stores were knit together by the Central Co-operative Exchange, which has been described as “a nexus of an essentially all-Finnish nation built in the shadow of American democracy: a material, social, and political universe, in which working Finns ran their own affairs.” (from the introduction to a large archive of their documents, 14 linear feet in all).

In order to be sure that we have an applicable model, and not just a quirk of a communitarian immigrant community, we need to look beyond the upper Midwest, we need more than one example, and we ideally need a sign that this approach can be sustainable. Luckily we don’t need to travel very far from Walsh. 

In western Kansas lies a town called Gove. It is a county seat with only 105 residents, which means that it is about as rural as it gets. The Gove Community Improvement Association (GCIA) opened a community-owned, not-for-profit grocery store in 1986, about three years after the previous store closed. In 1995, GCIA built a new store building (with volunteer labor), with space for the community-owned County Seat Cafe, which replaced a restaurant that had closed a few years earlier. In 2006, GCIA purchased a grocery wholesale business. By keeping profits in the community and reinvesting them in community needs, one of the smallest towns in the U.S. has gone from having no grocery store to owning its own grocery distributor. Not bad.

And before you think that this can only be done by a top-flight management and staff, consider the experience of the Bulldog Express in Leeton, Missouri (pop. 600). The market is run by high school students in an old bank building in the struggling downtown district (the bank still uses the vault). Students set up the store, and gain work experience doing everything but payroll.

So how is this all possible? Knowing that someone has done something useful somewhere does not necessarily translate into an ability to magically reproduce it. Walsh had a lot of help. Fortunately for people in Kansas, the state university has a Rural Grocery Store Initiative, which is being undertaken by the Center for Engagement and Community Development. I’m still exploring the site, but it looks like there are resources that could be useful to anyone, regardless of location.

Food Co-op 500 is another great source of information about the process of starting a food co-op in any setting. Much of this is easily available online. If you can get to Pittsburgh June 11-13, you can check out the Consumer Cooperative Management Association conference, which is an unparalleled opportunity for networking and learning.

If you can’t get to Pittsburgh and don’t live in Kansas, there is still a pretty good chance that your state is served by a member of CooperationWorks!, a cooperative of cooperative development centers. They primarily work in rural areas, but even city folk might be able to find useful information through this network.

I work with one of these centers, the California Center for Cooperative Development. If you are in the great troubled Golden State, please give us a call. We would love to help.

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