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SHOP AT YOUR LOCAL FOOD CO-OP

The chains obviously provide the public with greater exposure to organics and health food, but the co-ops see a sinister side. Michael Colby, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Food and Water, argues that "upscale health food supermarkets...do more damage than good, since they act as predators toward successful, locally based and nonprofit food cooperatives and farmers markets."

While Dave Gutknecht, publisher and editor of the trade publication Cooperative Grocer, credits "some of the better chains" with supporting local growers, he sees the biggest advantages of a co-op coming from its local control and sensitivity to community needs. "Co-ops are more tied to the community," says Gutknecht.

One of the seven essential principles of the International Cooperative Alliance is that a cooperative should be operated so that no one member can gain at the expense of another. The power and control that, in most corporate structures, is concentrated in a few hands, are spread among all the members of a co-op.

The profits of a co-op benefit all the owners, as opposed to mainly going to stockholders. "Bread and Circus is basically owned by Wall Street," points out Andy Ferguson, president of the Cooperative Development Institute. "Ultimately, it is available for the highest bidder. At some point, some large supermarket chain such as Safeway or Krogers will buy Whole Foods [which, as owner of Bread and Circus, Fresh Fields, and Mrs. Gooches, has already consolidated the industry]."

If Food and Water's Michael Colby objects to the lack of advocacy at natural-foods supermarkets now, it will only get worse should they be owned by larger, public companies. Cooperatives often sponsor events that have nothing to do with making a profit. In some cases, in the spirit of community involvement, they may even lose sales. The Brattleboro Food Co-op in Brattleboro, Vermont, for instance, lets local organic farmers practicing community-supported agriculture (selling their produce directly to subscribing consumers) use its facilities.

If "you are what you eat" was the aphorism that built food cooperatives, let us hope "we become where we shop" propels it forward.

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

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