U.S. food co-ops help locals live well

People shopping at grocery store (© Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
Judith Smith, center, and her mother, Sylmira Lawrence, of Hyattsville, Maryland, shop at the community-owned Takoma Park Silver Spring Co-op. (© Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Food cooperatives in the United States, unlike the more-prevalent grocery stores run by national chains, are owned by local shoppers themselves.

When local citizens pay a fee to join, they gain shopping privileges and the right to vote for a board of directors or to run for a seat on the board themselves.

“Members elect the boards, so it’s very democratic — one member, one vote,” said Elizabeth Lechleitner, spokeswoman for the National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International (NCBA CLUSA).

Food co-op boards set product standards. For instance, they might codify ways to supply healthier foods over processed foods or sugary drinks.

It costs $100 to join Takoma Park Silver Spring Co-op, located in a Maryland suburb of Washington. Shoppers may pay the fee in installments. Known for its local organic produce, this co-op also specializes in selling unique items, including the Mexican rice beverage horchata and the Middle Eastern sesame seed–based dessert called halvah.

Economic benefits

In the United States, food co-op stores affiliated with National Co+op Grocers, a member of NCBA CLUSA, serve 1.3 million member-owners. National Co+op Grocers is affiliated with 218 stores across the country. Combined, these stores report annual sales of $2.4 billion. But rather than rack up profits, many co-ops react to good financials by lowering prices or investing in their communities.

Community Engagement Manager Chloe Thompson, of the Maryland co-op, says members there get a 10% discount, issued through a monthly rebate. And 40% of U.S. food co-ops offer needs-based discounts, according to National Co+op Grocers (some co-ops double the dollar value of a federal benefit that subsidizes groceries for low-income Americans).

Social value

Yet, says Thompson, “the benefits of [co-op] membership, I think, are deeper than just an economic discount.”

Co-ops are expanding to rural America and to disadvantaged areas in cities, where there are fewer mainstream and affordable grocery stores, places where residents can suffer from a dearth of fresh food, according to Kate LaTour, director of government relations for NCBA CLUSA. In addition to providing healthier food, some co-ops boost wellness by offering nutrition-and-health classes in their communities, she says.

Other co-ops sponsor neighborhood baseball teams or voter registration drives. Some pay any member willing to pitch in on community-minded projects to do so.

Co-ops even take up international humanitarian causes. Soon after Russia’s February 24 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the National Co+op Grocers joined the Cooperative Development Foundation and NCBA CLUSA to raise funds for the Ukrainian cooperative community.

“The real value of membership is because you love this store and … you’re willing to invest your equity and be an owner and participant — that keeps this store here,” said C.E. Pugh, chief executive of National Co+op Grocers. “Without [local owner-members], this store doesn’t exist.”