When you hear the word “co-op,” what springs to mind? For some people, “co-op” may be their local grocery store; for others it may be a housing community. Whatever your initial association, you may be surprised by the many types of co-ops around you.
More than 800 million people around the world belong to cooperatives, and at least 100 million people are employed by co-ops. And more often than you might realize, co-ops play a vital part of your everyday life. Grocery stores, credit unions, housing co-ops, utility co-ops, health care cooperatives and food producer co-ops are just a few types of co-ops you have likely encountered, knowingly or unknowingly.
Declared by a United Nations resolution, 2012 is being recognized worldwide as the “International Year of Cooperatives.” The International Year of Cooperatives aims to share and celebrate the social and economic contributions of cooperative businesses, in which users can become owners. National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA) and its 122 retail food co-ops are marking the year with a variety of initiatives to help showcase the many benefits of cooperatives.
Consider the cup of coffee and cranberry muffin you recently enjoyed at your breakfast table. That coffee was likely purchased from a grower co-op in Indonesia, Sumatra or Peru. The flour in the muffin may have started as wheat from a farmer-owned grain milling co-op, and those cranberries could be from Ocean Spray, a producer-owned co-op. Those colorful walls? Perhaps they were painted with supplies purchased at Ace Hardware, a co-op owned by individual store operators. Maybe you’re wearing clothes bought at REI, a customer-owned co-op, or standing under a light fixture with electricity powered by an electricity co-op owned by residents in your community.
“From grocery stores and New York City apartments to credit unions and coffee producers, co-ops are all around us,” said Robynn Shrader, chief executive officer of NCGA. “Whether the co-op is operating on behalf of producers, workers or consumers, their general purpose is the same: to serve the needs of owners.”
Types of co-ops you may encounter everyday include:
Grocers. For nearly 80 years in communities across the country, retail food cooperatives have been leaders in providing consumers with high-quality local, organic, and sustainably produced food. Food co-ops take pride in building relationships with area growers and suppliers, and supported the concept of “local” long before local was cool. Food co-ops continue to lead and innovate to nurture and promote the growth of the local sustainable food systems – something that benefits both producers and consumers.
Financial services. Cooperative lending institutions often go where many investor-held banks won’t, which means they’re pumping billions of dollars into urban neighborhood stores and small-town businesses – and everything in between. Credit unions’ rich history begins in the early 1900s, when poor and working classes were denied credit from established banks and were forced to borrow from pawnbrokers and other unscrupulous moneylenders. They came together and took action, forming “people’s banks.” In 1934, President Roosevelt signed into law the Federal Credit Union Act in support of their community-minded stance. Today, the Act regulates approximately 12,000 credit unions, serving more than 76 million consumers around the country.
Food brands. Did you know that nearly 30 percent of all farmers’ products in the U.S. are marketed through more than 3,000 producer-owned cooperatives? Co-op food brands offer high-quality local, organic, and sustainably produced food. And of course, you can find many of these popular co-op food brands – such as Organic Valley Family of Farms, Frontier Natural Products, Equal Exchange, Florida’s Natural, and Cabot Creamery – in retail food co-ops.
Health care. Health care premiums and prescription medication costs are at an all-time high. But health care co-ops can help provide relief to both consumers and local business owners. Co-ops – such as HealthPartners – advocate for affordable premiums for members and small businesses, and they help community-owned nonprofit hospitals and independent pharmacists remain autonomous and affordable.
Housing. More than 1.2 million Americans, including upwards of 10,000 students, enjoy the affordability and community support of a housing co-op — from townhomes and high-rise apartments to senior citizen residences, mobile home parks and student housing. Members own a share in the cooperative, which manages the property where they live, and they pay a monthly fee to cover expenses like mortgage and maintenance.
Utilities. Electric cooperatives are owned by those who buy power and other services from the co-op. Their formation began in the 1930s when private, investor-owned utility companies refused to serve rural areas that were considered insufficiently profitable, with only a handful of customers per mile of line. The local farmers and residents banded together to found rural electric cooperatives. Today, electric co-ops own and maintain more than half of the nation’s power lines and provide service to communities large and small across the United States.
About National Cooperative Grocers Association
National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA), founded in 1999, is a business services cooperative for retail food co-ops located throughout the United States. NCGA helps unify food co-ops in order to optimize operational and marketing resources, strengthen purchasing power, and ultimately offer more value to natural food co-op owners and shoppers everywhere. The 122 NCGA members and associate co-ops operate nearly 160 storefronts in 34 states with combined annual sales over $1.3 billion. NCGA is a winner of the dotCoop Global Awards for Cooperative Excellence in recognition of the application of cooperative values and principles to drive cooperative and business success. For a map of NCGA member and associate co-ops, visit www.ncga.coop. To learn more about food co-ops, visit www.strongertogether.coop or www.go.coop.