Becoming Human: Amherst’s Common Share Food Co-op

Photo: Common Share Food Cooperative

Editor’s note: Becoming Human returns this week after a brief hiatus. Each edition of Becoming Human will feature an article, reflection, interview, poetry, or other types of expression that engage with a creative community or municipal effort. These will include original features that discuss a local initiative and also stories about efforts in other parts of the world that we might learn from. The growing narratives, relations, and power from which other worlds are being assembled, maybe, can help reorient our hope and desire—and resignation—away from the death drive of white supremacist, heteronormative, capitalist modernity, and towards an open, uncharted horizon of radical egalitarianism and towards the reality that other worlds are in the making or already here. For the full introduction to Becoming Huaman that appeared in its inaugural column, look here


Common Share Food Co-op, like many efforts to form cooperative enterprises, is years in the making. As Common Share closes in on its 1,000-member benchmark that will enable it to move forward with construction of the store, some of its foundations are already set. As its website explains:

The Common Share Food Co-op will be a full-service, community- and worker-owned grocery store located close to downtown Amherst and on a bus line. The store will feature local, sustainably grown, organic and conventional produce, meats, and dairy products, as well as all the other things you’d expect to find in a grocery store — bulk foods, dry goods, frozen foods, etc. The Co-op will also carry a range of household and cleaning products.

The Co-op’s professional Market Study, completed in the fall of 2017, assumed a 12,000 square foot store with 7,500 square feet of retail space and approximately 75 parking spaces. A store of this size would make shopping accessible and convenient and would be large enough to include a variety of grocery store departments, including produce, meat, dairy, a deli with prepared foods, and a hot bar with grab-and-go meals. The store will also offer frozen foods, a bakery, a small café area, and a beer and wine section.

However, there is still much to be done and Common Share needs the ideas and energies of its member-owners as well as the broader Amherst Community to bring this project to fruition.

In the following conversation—transcribed, edited, and composed from a conversation this past fall in Anthropology 340, Other Economies are Possible at UMass Amherst—former board member and current president of the UAW Local 2322, Patrick Burke, and current board member and the UMass Amherst Academic advisor for Social Thought and Political Economy, Monica Garcia, discuss how they became involved in the effort, the history of Common Share, the current status of the venture, the values that drive the project, as well as challenges and hopes for the future. 

Beginnings: Patrick Burke: I was a board member on what is now Common Share Food Co-op between 2014 and 2020. I came to it through the labor movement in Western Massachusetts that I have been working in now for about 10 years. I was first very involved in an organization called Jobs with Justice as a volunteer. I would show up to picket lines and protests and community meetings. [One of the these meetings] was a conference in 2011 or 2012, and Mondragon Cooperatives had just made a partnership with a union called United Steelworkers to basically try to develop Mondrago- style cooperatives in the United States. At the conference, we actually had someone from the steelworkers there [who] presented on this, and so that was the first time that I learned a lot about cooperatives. And since that point, folks that I knew then ended up creating Wellspring Cooperatives

After I worked for Jobs with Justice, I worked for a union called the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents grocery stores, and I was an organizer, so my role there was helping workers form unions in the first place. In that role, I worked on several campaigns organizing food cooperatives. Most food cooperatives are just consumer cooperatives, meaning the ownership is in the consumers, not in the workers. So, a lot of consumer co-ops in my experience when I was doing organizing work, were run very similar to any other capitalist grocery store. The way I got connected with Common Share—I was just curious. I was like, ‘I’ve been involved with all of this organizing stuff, I’d like to see a cooperative that is built from the ground up that doesn’t, you know, embody some of these bad practices that I’ve seen with existing food co-ops.’

There was a group of UMass Amherst students who had created a project called The Amherst Community Market. And, essentially, they were all involved in the student co-ops on campus, and they had built a business plan. They started to have meetings in the Amherst community and found out there were a lot of community members who were really interested in having a good Co-op here. So, I was in that next group of community members [who took the project on]. 

Monica Garcia: My name is Monica Garcia, I use she/her pronouns, and I am a brand new board member of the Common Share Food Co-op. I started just this past summer. As a very young child, I started to get a sense that gender was a problem, and that I was often getting the raw end of the deal. I could see that my peers who were assigned male at birth were being treated very differently than I was. But it wasn’t until I was much older that I got a better sense of all of these other oppressive systems and structures that were around me. I grew up as the child of two immigrants, and that certainly gave me a perception that things were kind of unfair. But it was hard for me to really understand what exactly was unfair, and certainly why, the big why. 

[When] I got to graduate school I studied social work. I was introduced to radical politics through my peers. They started to organize meetings and had social groups and events that helped me understand the why. And at that point, I started to feel the anger and despair that comes with kind of understanding not just that we have these injustices, but that they’re not inevitable. That we could do things to change them. That we can have a different society, if we tried. After that, I started working in food justice work in Arizona, and we started organizing farmers markets in low-income areas, and trying to kind of reimagine what a farmers market [could be], so that it wasn’t just for wealthier folks that could afford to buy a $6 carton of eggs. And also understand that farmers should be paid fair wages and for what they’re producing. So we wanted to balance those very real conditions. And it was a really interesting and compelling work that started me on that path of thinking about ‘how can we build things differently? If these capitalist structures and systems don’t work, what can we do as alternatives?’ 

After I did that food justice work in Arizona I moved to New York. I started working with an organization that was primarily involved in and focused on economic justice, and they decided that they were going to start focusing on the Solidarity Economy. [In particular] they wanted to explore different solutions to the housing crisis [in addition to just opposition] and one that they kind of settled on was the use of Community Land Trusts (CLT) to deal with the housing issue. On the very basic level, CLTs are legal arrangements that allow land and the use of the land to be separated from what is built on top. And so the proposal was to get land, whether it’s city land or privately owned land, and put it in a community land trust so that the land is always controlled by the community. And then the community can decide what gets used, what gets built on it. 

I spent a lot of time doing presentations on community land trusts to city council folks and their offices, as well as neighborhood community groups. And it was really exciting to see it kind of catch on. So now in New York City. But in that work we also promoted other types of economic models that fit within the Solidarity Economy, like worker co-ops. And, [after I moved to Amherst] when I saw lawn signs for Common Share Food Co-op I got excited to know that there was a startup effort in the community. And so I reached out to them and they were looking for board members so I applied and that’s how I got involved.

Worker Ownership, Cooperation, and Community Space

Patrick Burke: The model that has become very popular with food co-ops is this kind of selling to a niche market, which is to higher income [people], and you’re going to sell very specialized products. And that’s how you’re going to succeed. [But there is a question about] how this [type of model] is going to serve the community. If we just build a consumer cooperative “Whole Foods”, which is what many food co-ops essentially are, is that actually going to serve the diversity of the community? Is that actually going to be something that’s actually welcoming to folks no matter what their income level is? Is it going to be something that is going to feel like your store, whether your first language is in English, or you’re an immigrant?

The original vision of [the students] who put together the cooperative was to have a collective governance model…so it’s going to be worker, and community owned…and it’s going to be collective leadership. And one of the things that I learned [when I got involved] was that there was a whole history of food co-ops…that tried out [different models]: all volunteer run, worker-owned, no staff, staff and collectives….[at Common Share] there was a general agreement that we should have a collective management structure. We also had questions: Do we want this just to be a grocery store? Do we want it also to be a community space that has other things going on? And so we had board members who were really interested in that. And we had a lot of good conversations with other food co-ops we talked to—folks who are starting a consumer- and worker-owned grocery in Dorchester, and we had a really good conversation with a network of food co-ops, in North Carolina, I think, that is also worker and community owned.

Monica Garcia: [worker ownership] is a particularly exciting model because it gives so much agency and flexibility to the people that produce the goods, the people that work there, the people who have to be there all the time. Patrick mentioned the community space that we want to have in the store. That’s something that is also really exciting about the project; we’re trying to build in a common space for community members so we call it a third space, something that’s outside of your home and your work. It’s a third space that you can come and use for art for example, or classes or community meetings, which is something that is a little harder to come by in Amherst. I mean there’s obviously a lot of space at the university, but that’s not necessarily open to community members. So it’s a nice opportunity to contribute a common space to the town as well.

Meeting Challenges

Monica Garcia: There are tensions. How do you become a sustainable business and provide affordable prices for folks in the community that can’t afford to shop at places like Whole Foods? There are some co-op consulting groups that want you to kind of conform to a very specific model that enshrines hierarchy. In some ways, they want to see a very typical supermarket structure. I can say the board is exploring other other forms of governance and trying to figure out how we keep a more group-oriented management style, so that workers and community have as much agency as possible. 

And we have to figure out the balance that feels comfortable for us as a community. 

And, in terms of community engagement, there is a sense when you’re talking to some folks [about Common Share and what a community-owned co-op is]…they understand that they might have to pay into a co-op to become members…[and] they want the store to be built, but they’re not necessarily thinking that they should participate in an active way in order to achieve that. Some folks don’t have any sort of experience with cooperatives either. So, it can be a struggle of explaining that this is a community effort. We don’t want to just plop a store in the middle of downtown. We want community members to really feel ownership over it, and to participate in it, in a myriad of ways. So it’s fighting against that kind of mentality that it’s just a store, and I will pay into it and, and that’ll be it. And getting folks to feel as active participants and active owners. 

It is also really energizing because it is an opportunity, ultimately, to build relationships with people. That’s what it is, at its core is. It’s a project of building relationships with people and learning how to make decisions together as a group. So, that can be extremely challenging but that’s one of the primary reasons why I enjoy working on Solidarity Economy, because it’s about building relationships with people and talking to people. I’ve met a ton of people just tabling at the farmers market. And it’s, it’s exciting to hear when people are telling me that they’ve been members, you know, for six years. And they’re still telling their neighbors about it or that they just moved into town and they are really surprised Amherst doesn’t have a food co-op and they’re ready to join right away. 

Common Share is closing in on–and with your help–hopes to surpass the 1,000-member threshold needed to proceed with their business plan this spring. Visit Common Share to learn more, to become a member owner of Common Share, or to purchase a “solidarity” membership for others.

*******************************************************************

Boone Shear teaches in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is involved with a number of overlapping efforts to imagine, organize around, and expand post-capitalist possibility in Massachusetts. 

Acknowledgements: This column—and the articles cited within—are in dialogue and solidarity with numerous collaborators and comrades including Vin Lyon-Callo, Meredith Degyansky, Penn Loh, Stephen Healy, students in Anthropology 340 – Other Economies are Possible, Anthropology 341 Building Solidarity Economies, Anthropology 597CC Community, Commons, Communism, and the pluriverse of world-making and world-defending efforts, movements, and projects in Massachusetts and around the worlds. 

Spread the love

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.