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SHOP AT YOUR LOCAL FOOD CO-OP

Wendell Berry has remarked that everyone is connected to the land by their gastrointestinal tract. Even if our food-gathering instincts have been reduced to cruising the supermarket aisles and scanning for red dot specials, how and where we obtain our food impacts on the environment and the world at large. One way to make that impact a positive one is to shop at your local food co-op.

Most retail, consumer food cooperatives trace their roots to the "buying clubs" of the late 60s and early 70s, founded by counterculture sorts seeking healthy, chemical-free food not found in the supermarkets. As healthy eating grew in popularity, many of these loosely structured, member-only associations turned into retail stores. Although these nonprofit coops often remained informally run, somewhat laid-back operations, they tended to flourish, unencumbered by any real competition. Not surprisingly, in the 1990s, all that is changing.

The growth trend of the natural foods industry--15 percent annually--hasn't gone unnoticed by entrepreneurs with investable cash. Supermarkets, though still largely stuck in their unsustainable, mass-market ways, are adding greater selections of health food and organic produce. But it's a new category--the natural food supermarkets--that provides much more direct competition.

Although co-ops aren't immediately headed for the Endangered Species List (most have grown more savvy in response to competition), companies like Whole Foods draw away customers. Fresh Fields, for example, which was started by an ex-Goldman Sachs investment banker and one of the founders of the office-supply superstore chain Staples, is a well-capitalized mainstream business. Such chains expose the vulnerablities of co-ops, which tend to be communally run, intuitive and financed on a shoestring. In some sense, food cooperatives are victims of their own success. If they weren't successful businesses in the Wall Street Journal sense, they'd hardly be attracting competitors.

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Article originally published in E/The Environmental Magazine
By Marshall Glickman


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