Cooperative By Design – The Brattleboro Food Co-op

December 26, 2023
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by Jerelyn Wilson, BFC Board President

In the 1946 movie, It’s A Wonderful Life, George Bailey (played by James Stewart), the small community of Bedford Falls, New York, rallies around the struggling local Bailey Brothers Building & Loan bank, an institution that supported many of the townsfolk over many years. When a guardian angel, Clarence, shows Bailey a future in which he was never born, Baliey can see how different the town—renamed Pottersville—had become. 

Although the Brattleboro Food Co-op is very different from Building & Loan, they both share a commitment to community that is inherent in their business models. The owners of our Co-op are those of us who shop there—or have shopped there in the past—and chose to invest in a local grocery store that is committed to the local economy.

Maybe you have noticed changes in a number of Brattleboro’s downtown business establishments: Tine, Mocha Joe’s, Sam’s, and Whetstone. Running a business is no small feat, especially in this age of consolidation where chains, box stores, and multifaceted corporations all but control the pricing of goods in both the wholesale and retail markets. Might there be an advantage to the cooperative business model? How might things have been different if Sam’s had been a cooperative? 

I can tell you that as an independent retail grocer, the Brattleboro Food Co-op is operating in a highly competitive environment, one that’s increasingly challenging in a variety of ways. So what might be the advantage of being a cooperative? How might it be an advantage to our community that the Brattleboro Food Co-op is a cooperative? 

One of the key differences between a cooperative and a standard corporation is the ownership structure. Who owns a business makes a big difference in the consequential decisions that are made. Just think for a moment about who owns the Brattleboro Food Co-op. The Co-op is owned by the subset of shoppers who have chosen to purchase a life-time membership share for $80. That’s me, and possibly you, and over 9,000 other individuals. Other companies have shareholders, but there is a key difference in a cooperative: “democratic member control,” which means no shareholder holds more than one share. There is no majority shareholder. One member, one share, one vote. That’s inherent in being a cooperative. 

Among other things, the ownership model of a company impacts how and where money flows. The financial profits of a cooperative go towards fulfilling the social, economic, and cultural needs of the community. When a co-op does well, it benefits the community as a whole. Most of the money I spend at the Co-op stays in this community. Any profits the Co-op makes are used to strengthen the business, and if there is more than enough to do that, patronage dividends are distributed to shareholders. No single person or majority owner is benefiting. We all benefit. 

A mantra familiar to many Co-op shoppers and shareholders, Think Globally/Act Locally, is a good one to unpack. Thinking globally helps us to understand the consequences of current trends. Acting locally offers us a chance to experience some personal agency. I feel a sense of agency as a shareholder of the Brattleboro Food Co-op. I believe it is a “local act” to join the Co-op. The more I learn about the cooperative business model, the more I understand the value it offers my local community. When I support the Co-op with my time and money, I believe I am strengthening my community.

Also, the cooperative business model requires the business to be driven by a set of community-minded values. You can look up the International Cooperative Alliance to read about the Cooperative Identity – the Values and Principles of the cooperative movement. With this in mind, the Brattleboro Food Co-op has a set of statements that guide the decisions we make. We call these our Ends Policies. Here they are: 

The Brattleboro Food Co-op, an organization modeled on cooperative values and principles, exists to serve its shareholders’ collective needs for:

  • An open, inclusive, and welcoming marketplace
  • Access to and education about goods and nutritious food that are ecologically sound and responsibly sourced
  • An organization that contributes to a just and resilient local economy
  • An enterprise that engages in sustainable and regenerative environmental practices

Shopping at the Co-op strengthens the fabric of our community in so many ways. I, for one, am very glad that the Brattleboro Co-op exists. As we approach our 50th anniversary, we can look forward to celebrating and understanding more deeply how we can continue to be part of its thriving future.