Vermont is home to many long-time food cooperatives. Many of them were established to meet a demand for natural and organic foods.
Today, organizers in Barre, Morrisville and Bennington, say they’re hoping to start up more mainstream full service grocery stores in unserved locations.
Over the years, the migration of supermarkets from city centers to shopping plazas outside of town has left communities without a downtown grocery store. This new wave of co-ops in an attempt to change that.
In each case, organizers have discovered that establishing a locally owned food cooperative takes longer than they first thought.
It’s a process that begins with signing up enough paying members to raise the initial capital needed before a site for the store is found. All three co-op groups are still in the membership phase.
In Bennington, Kelly McElheny has been coordinating the effort to start the Southshire Community Market. It’s been slow going in the two years since the coop was incorporated.
The co-op currently has 89 members, which is down from a high of just over one hundred.
McElheny says selling $200 can be difficult because the co-op is still just a concept.
“Because there’s no store, you can’t go shopping. There’s no tangible benefit that you receive,” she says.
McElheny is planning a membership drive this fall. In the meantime she’s working to establish a buying club in Bennington as a way to build membership.
“A lot of fretting has been done that we’re not at 500 members or we should be at 1,000 members," says McElheny. "Well we’ve got some members, so let’s start doing what co-ops do.”
Plans for a co-op in Barre are further along than in Bennington.
Chris Riddell is president of the board of the Granite City Co-op , which is also going on two years.
Just over 500 people have joined. Riddell says once membership reaches 800, the organization will lease a downtown space. He hopes that will happen in the fall, but Riddell says the timeline isn’t important.
“Our primary goal here is to open a store that will be adequately financed and well supported from the outset in order to be a success in the future,” says Riddell. “We’re not tied to a specific date.”
The 6,000 square foot store Riddell and his group envision would take the place of a downtown Grand Union supermarket which closed 14 years ago.
Riddell says Granite City Co-op will be different from some older coops and natural foods stores.
There will be an emphasis on locally produced foods but it will also carry many typical supermarket brands and items to meet the demands of a broad cross section of residents.
“We’re not talking about opening an exclusively natural foods market in downtown Barre, we’re talking about opening a grocery store that will be acceptable to all kinds of people who live and work in Barre,” he says.
Ridell estimates that the coop will need 1200 members when it opens. He says membership funds are only a fraction of the roughly $4 million dollars it could take to open and sustain the market. The rest of the money will have to come from bank loans and grants.
In Morrisville a similar effort to organize a co-op has attracted 350 paying members so far. Coop board chairman Peter Christie says financing, location, operating costs and many other details remain to be worked out before the co-op becomes a sure thing.
“I think that’s an ongoing process,” Christie says. “You keep testing and saying, ‘yes, ok, let’s go to the next step’. I think we have the obligation to constantly be checking the feasibility.”
As in the other communities, Christie says the Morrisville Food Co-op will cater both to people who are interested in natural foods and those who are not.
He says bringing a grocery store back to the downtown area could attract more businesses and provide Morrisville with economic benefits beyond supporting local farms.
”The co-op format means that all the economic activity stays within the community as opposed to being sent off distant corporations,” says Christie.
The three Vermont co-op are among 113 nationwide that are in various stages of development.
Most take from three to five years to go from signing up their first members to opening their doors.