Think Globally, Act Locally.
We’ve heard this adage a number of times. One way to transfer these words into action is by participating in an alternative to big box stores: cooperative businesses, or co-ops. A cooperative business is owned by its members, and in some cases, its workers. There are housing cooperatives, merchandise cooperatives, credit union cooperatives, and, among others, food cooperatives.
As a member of a food co-op, you are a vested owner. Membership fees vary, but they legally cannot exceed $300. In most cases, this is a one-time lifetime fee or a series of smaller fees, often per household. A co-op membership entitles the owner/member to participate in the governance of the store. Most co-ops have a board of directors elected by the membership that carries the members’ concerns and desires into action. Along with discounts and sales, co-op members receive a share of the profits based on their annual expenditures.
Because most food co-ops are started through membership dollars and loans, it takes many members to open the doors of a brick and mortar store. In the Los Angeles area, there is one long-standing food co-op as well as a few start-ups in south LA and Altadena. The established store that many look to is Co-opportunity, also known as “the Co-op”, in Santa Monica. I spoke with Ricardo Chavira, the Co-op’s Marketing Director, and Dean Kubani, a Co-op board member who is also the Director of the Office of Sustainability and the Environment for the City of Santa Monica.
Co-opportunity was founded in 1974 by a small group of people who decided to take charge of the way they bought food. Started in a small garage in West LA, Co-opportunity eventually moved to a larger storefront in Santa Monica. Kubani says there is talk about further expansion because the size of their present store is becoming insufficient. When asked if Co-Opportunity would expand to other areas of LA, both Kubani and Chavira said that the next store would likely also be on the Westside.
As a founder of a new co-op, I sought guidance from Ricardo and Dean. As for possible pitfalls, I learned that the business encountered financial difficulty early in the 1980s. At that point, Will Simon stepped in as General Manager and turned the business around. Most recently, Bruce Palma was hired as the new General Manager and has already begun to make great improvements.
One of the things that struck me about the men I interviewed was how happy they were working for Co-opportunity. They felt that doing good for themselves and others has led to a sense of fulfillment. Both were eager to talk about the Co-op’s community outreach efforts. For example, Ricardo spends time finding organizations, nonprofits, and schools whose missions dovetail with the co-op’s policies. In many cases, the Co-op helps these groups with charitable donations.
Co-ops can also use the strength of their membership to address environmental and social issues. One such issue is the labeling of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). Co-opportunity has made donations, held fundraising events, and collected signatures for the Non-GMO Project. Shelf tags and lists are also available which showcase the items that have been certified by the Non-GMO Project. Additionally, the Co-op raises awareness on a wide range of health-related topics by offering a free lecture series on Monday evenings at The Gentle Wellness Center at 9 th and Broadway in Santa Monica.
Becoming a member of a co-op is to become a part of the community. Membership offers opportunities to meet, shop, do business, and socialize with people who have similar ideas about health, nutrition, and sustainability. Co-ops offer a platform and the power of group support to promote certain ideas and, while those are indeed perks, the underlying reason many members join a co-op is to have a say in the products stocked at their store.
Let’s now take a look at what’s happening where I live in South Los Angeles, between USC and Leimert Park. A year ago, I began organizing a natural foods cooperative named South LA Food Co-op (SoLA). Speaking with political officials, I was informed that Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods didn’t think they needed to come to South LA because we would go to them.When I inquired about organic food at the local supermarket, I was told people in this neighborhood can’t afford organic food, which seemed unfair and incorrect. I created SoLA knowing that if more people were aware of the food they were eating, there would be a greater demand for healthier choices. Not wanting to continue driving all over LA for food, the idea of starting a cooperatively-owned store dawned on me.
Last year, research on the topic brought me to the California Center for Cooperative Development’s annual conference in Berkeley. I returned inspired and began sharing the idea with others. My community became excited and, because of their support, we now have almost 200 names on our contact list, with roughly twenty core members taking steps to move the concept forward. A large part of our outreach is through word of mouth and has been a driving force to get people engaged. We’ve also hosted tables at various events throughout Los Angeles.
The vision of SoLA is to empower the community and bring healthy food to South Los Angeles. In an area where type-2 diabetes, hypertension, allergies, and asthma are often seen, we will host workshops on nutrition, cooking, and healing with food. This is going to be a place where members will earn patronage dividends while they shop comfortably in a beautiful setting, confident that the foods they purchase are naturally healthy and locally-sourced.
By Bahni Turpin, actress, writer, and yoga teacher, is the founder of the South L.A. Food Co-op (SoLA). Solafoodcoop.com
Support SoLA by attending the emerging co-op market’s fundraiser on August 18 at Fais Do Do nightclub from 5 PM – 11 PM. The event includes multiple artistic offerings, singers, bands, comedians, poets, Aztec dancers, vendors, food, a silent auction, and more. The kids’ area includes cooking demos and activities in the outdoor courtyard in the early part of the evening. Fais Do Do Nightclub, 5257 W.Adams Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90016. faisdodo.com
Santa Monica Co-opportunity Natural Foods, 1525 Broadway, Santa Monica, CA 90404. 310-451-892. Coopportunity.com.
This year, Santa Monica Co-opportunity, SoLA and other cooperative markets are celebrating the International Year of Cooperatives.
SoLA photos by: Milo/uneomedia.com