In Central Virginia, residents are coming together to build a full service cooperative grocery store. Popularly known as food co-ops, the initiative aims to promote access to locally grown food, provide education on healthy eating and strengthen community networks. For Virginia Currents, Catherine Komp has more.
Learn More: Follow the Richmond Food Co-op's progress on their Facebook page and find more info about membership and cooperatives on their website. And check out other food co-op start-ups around the country.
At the new co-working space Gather, about 20 people turn out for the Richmond Food Co-op’s community forum. The Co-op has held about a dozen of these meetings to help educate the community about what a food co-op is and attract new members.
Co-founders Susan Hill and Michele Lord welcome the group and provide an introduction to the international movement of cooperatives.
Michele Lord: There are a lot of different types of cooperatives, we’re going to be a food cooperative, but there are energy cooperatives, retail cooperatives, employee-owned cooperatives…
Lord says the Richmond Food Co-op will be a member-owned, full service grocery store focused on local, sustainable and affordable products.
Michele Lord: This is a movement of people coming together to make something happen. So rather than just waiting for the grocery store of our dreams to show up a block from our house, we are coming together as a group and saying it’s our responsibility to make that happen.
To become a member, adults pay a one-time investment of $125 in refundable equity. Each household also pays a $25 joining fee. For people with limited income, the joining fee is $5 and equity is $10. And membership will provide more than a discount on food, explains Lord.
Lord: So this is a democratically-run business, which means as a member you are an owner in this business and you’re an equal owner in this business, we all are. We vote for the board, everybody who’s a member has the opportunity to run for the board if they’d like and we help really to inform the decision-making for this business.
One prospective member says he’s interested in healthy food sources after experiencing a bout of cancer. Others want access to more local food during the winter months, and products that are affordable. And a few, including Terri Levandoski are signing up.
Terri Levandoski: It’s a great idea, it’s a great project and I think everybody these days is more conscious of where their food comes from, they want to live more healthy.
About 500 others have also become members since the Richmond Food Co-Op launched in January 2013. They’ll need 500 more to help move closer to the goal of opening the 8,000-10,000 square foot grocery store and community center in Scott’s Addition. Not all of the $1.7 million in funding will come from memberships; loans - including micro loans from members - will be part of the equation. Michele Lord says while they’re seeing momentum, part of the challenge is convincing people to become members before a store is built.
Lord: We hit a point where we realized that right now we have enough followers to make it happen tomorrow and it’s just transitioning from people waiting and watching and wanting to join once we’re open to understanding that that’s actually the pivotal piece - that people have to get on board now and be the ones to make it open.
Lord and Hill say building a Co-op in Richmond is like a marathon rather than a sprint, and they want to make sure it will benefit the community for many years to come.
Lord: In the last 10 years, Richmond has really seen a growth and interest in eating locally and the farmers markets have just blown up. I think it’s been a long-time coming but I think that people really now over the last 10 years have developed the interest to be able to sustain it and to do it in a way that goes beyond a niche interest here and there, but something that has a lot of broad appeal of bringing people around this.
Hill: Like so many things in life, it’s about timing and we feel like it’s just been timed really nicely on the heels of the swell of interest in food and also pride in Richmond and the focus on building our Richmond community.
Food co-ops were a part of Richmond’s not-to-distant history. Cheryl Mershack, a member of the new co-op, remembers Fair Share which closed in the early 1990s.
Cheryl Mershack: Now we have a new movement that’s drawing people together, the local movement, the organic is much stronger, back then it was more natural, not as much packaging, not supporting multinational corporations. So now it’s more getting into the local thing.
Food justice and equity is another important motivation for the co-op’s founders and members. University of Richmond Assistant Professor and Co-op board member Julietta Singh says her goal is to make sure the organization is truly representative of the community.
Julietta Singh: So not just another grocery store that serves a certain socio-economic and also racial constituency but is truly dynamic in terms of race, gender, class, sexuality and so on and so forth. So my aims and my investments in being involved in the board are all geared toward creating a space in Richmond that centers around food that is both educational and inclusive.
Other board members also have a deep interest in food. Josiah Lockhart is co-owner of Lockhart Family Farm which raises rare and heritage breed poultry, pigs and rabbits and Tim Vidra is a food and lifestyle blogger. They’re attracted by the Co-op’s democratic and social aspects.
Josiah Lockhart: One of the reason I believe so strongly in cooperatives is that they’re democratically-run organizations where everybody has a say and it’s a unique thing in that a lot of people, particularly with food-related organizations, have a lot to say and lots of strong opinions and are very quick to critique the decisions an organization makes. A lot of other food businesses in Richmond have fallen prey to this over the years. But the advantage of having a co-op is that those people with those very strong opinions have a say and can take part in making decisions and changing them, which is a really important thing for us and one of the main reasons why I love co-ops as much as I do.
Tim Vidra: I think it’s helping build a community and I think it’s coming together and shopping together with like-minded folks and realizing that there’s more people like yourselves in the community that maybe have the same interests that a co-op community brings.
As the Richmond Food Co-op continues toward its goal of opening a store, members do get discounts with area businesses through a Buy Local program. And it’s holding monthly events, including happy hours, volunteer days and a summer picnic, as a way for members to connect, collaborate and build community. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.