Food co-operatives hope to open soon in the suburbs
Four groups planning food co-ops across suburbs
Local food. Local ownership. Local gathering place.
This is the vision of hundreds of people living near Batavia, Elgin, Lombard and McHenry. They're planning four separate food cooperatives and hoping to turn them into brick and mortar locations within the next two or three years.
"It's really so much more than a grocery store," says Kathy Nash, co-founder of the Prairie Food Co-Op, which plans to open in Lombard.
Inside a co-op, customers can expect to find departments similar to those found in a traditional grocery store, such as produce, frozen products, meat and a deli.
The products, though, will mostly be a variety of locally produced, organic and natural foods -- all chosen by the owners of the co-op.
Owners live in the communities served by the co-ops, unlike big-name grocers that sometimes have owners living in other parts of the country, or even around the world. Co-op members buy up to five shares that typically cost about $100 or $200 each to get the store up and running, and eventually elect a board of directors.
In addition, co-ops often host classes and workshops on everything from healthy eating and preparing nutritious dinners to home-brewing beer and purchasing food on a limited budget.
Scott Brix, steering team member of the yet-to-be named McHenry-area food co-op, said he hopes suburban co-ops will be "a place not only for good food and sustainable living, but also a place that's fun to hang out, that builds community."
While the organizations are often for-profit, their focus is on reinvesting in the co-op, so it can provide products and programming that cater to the needs and wants of each community. They also rely heavily on volunteers who are passionate about sustainability.
Organizers say educating people about what a co-op is may be one of their biggest challenges. That includes tearing down the common misconception that co-ops are exclusive, members-only places, when in fact, they're open to the public.
"I think that for a long time, people thought of co-ops, socially, as something that a bunch of hippies would go to. They didn't see it as a mainstream, viable thing," said Kelley Mathews of Green Tomato Grocery, which hopes to open in Batavia. "Now that there's a good, viable template out there, I think it's catching on, and you're going to see a lot more co-ops popping up."
Stuart Reid is the executive director of the Minnesota-based Food Co-op Initiative, which provides free services and advice to people trying to start a co-op. His group is working with co-op organizers in about 120 communities nationwide.
In recent years, Reid said, there has been a renewed interest in co-ops, which had a first wave in the U.S. in the late 1960s and 1970s. The reasons vary from increasing public awareness of food issues to people's desire to have more control in their community.
There's significant variety among suburbanites who want to start co-ops -- from moms worried about what their children are being fed from the mainstream food supply to vegans or people with allergies who have a hard time finding food that fits in their diet.
"Then there's people like me," Brix said. "I care about all those same things, too, but my main driver is sustainability for our species."
About 70 co-ops have opened throughout the U.S. since the Food Co-op Initiative started eight years ago, Reid said. Overall, an estimated 350 co-ops exist nationwide.
In fact, they're a primary source of groceries in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area, with more than a dozen in those cities' limits, Reid said. Many are also popping up in Philadelphia, New England, the Pacific Northwest and San Francisco Bay Area.
While co-op distribution generally follows population, Chicago is an exception.
Support has been quickly garnered for The Sugar Beet Co-Op, which plans to open next year in Oak Park. And the Dill Pickle Co-Op in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood has found success since opening in 2009. But the next closest co-op would likely be in Wisconsin or downstate Illinois.
Off the ground
The capital to open a co-op is raised almost entirely within the community where it is located.
Reid said it typically takes about 1,000 individual owners to get one up and running. Many of them offer private loans in addition to the startup shares they all purchased to become owners.
Most co-ops lease space that already exists. Still, the cost to open a co-op's doors relates almost directly to square footage, with a moderately sized store containing 4,000 to 6,000 square feet of retail costing about $1.5 million to open.
Reid encourages co-op organizers to pick a space that will meet demand instead of renting a small space just to save money and open earlier.
"Most of the ones who have failed have been very small co-ops. It just doesn't pencil out well," he said.
The time frame to open a co-op depends on how effective organizers are at recruiting the number of members they need to get started, Reid said. Often, it takes between three to five years.
All four suburban co-ops have received only positive feedback and support for their plans, organizers say.
Two of them already have more than 100 owners, and most of them are in the process of raising enough money to conduct a feasibility study, which will help narrow their options for a location.
"I'm kind of amazed. A year ago it just seemed like a dream that could have easily died on the vine," Brix said. "This train has left the station. It's not a matter of if, but when."
Co-op organizers have started hosting meet and greets to inform people about their mission. They also are educating people in unique ways. The Elgin-based Shared Harvest co-op, for example, has been regularly airing films about the modern food supply at community meetings.
"There's a ton of interest," said Jennifer Shroder, vice president of Shared Harvest. "It will be interesting to see how much interest pans out into financial support."
Mathews of Batavia's Green Tomato Grocery said the appeal of co-ops to many is their economic model of providing food and services that "puts people before profit."
"We own the company," she said. "We vote on what its standards are going to be for service and for the products it acquires."
A co-op, she added, gives people on Main Street a way to do something as the economy continues to struggle.
"Every community is looking for a way to keep its wealth and resources in the neighborhood and that's one of the things a co-op does," she said.
That doesn't necessarily make the process easier though, Reid said.
"All co-ops getting started, they face far more competition than they did when they opened in the first wave," he said, adding that co-ops helped build the current organic and natural food market. "You have to be able to fill a need that isn't being met to be successful."
Organizers for suburban co-ops remain convinced there is a unique "need." While co-ops are "a little" like Whole Foods or Trader Joes, Shroder said, they stand out because they help locals -- from in-state farmers to workers who will receive above-average pay.
Co-ops are at the forefront of genetically modified organism and organic labeling, and offer information about products, such as the farm it came from, that can't be found in other stores.
"The more educated people become, they become aware of the failings of our system as it stands and how this is really quite the answer to the problem," Shroder said.
Nash said she isn't too concerned about competing with grocery stores that already exist -- especially in Lombard, where local grocer Mr. Z's recently shut down.
"I think co-ops are so unique and offer so many things you can't find in a chain store that will really set us apart," she said.
Now, as they start to reach monetary and ownership goals, the organizers for the suburban co-ops will need to think carefully about their next steps.
"In general, I think they're in a very good place for a successful store," Reid said. "So much of it depends on getting the right site. That's the other piece that can be difficult in an urban environment."
Films recommended by suburban co-op organizers"Food for Change"
Focuses on the food co-op movement in the U.S., including the way they are strengthening communities and helping the local economy.
"Forks Over Knifes"
Examines whether degenerative diseases can be controlled or reversed by diets free of animal-based and processed foods.
"Seeds of Freedom"
Charts the story of seed, including the impact the industrial agricultural system and genetically modified seeds have on communities around the world.
"What's on Your Plate?"
Follows two 11-year-olds from New York City as they discover where their food comes from and learn more about sustainable food practices, including co-ops.