Opinion: Why Amherst Needs A Food Coop

Photo: Common Share Food Coop

Editor’s note:  The column appeared previously in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

It’s been nearly 10 years since a group of idealistic young people decided to organize a food co-op for Amherst. Their intention was to put into practice what they’d learned about cooperative enterprises as students at UMass. I and other members of the community were inspired by their plans to organize a food store owned by both workers and consumers.

Ten years later, the Common Share Food Co-op remains a dream in the hearts of over 800 household member-owners. In the U.S., it takes on average eight to 10 years to open a new food co-op. Add to that the fact that, for two years and counting, we’ve all been going through a once-in-century pandemic. Nevertheless, while people’s attention has been turned elsewhere, a dedicated group of people has not given up on the co-op. I share their belief that now, more than ever, a food co-op is exactly what Amherst needs.

Our food co-op will be a business built and run by and for the people who work at and are served by the co-op, people who actually know one another. It will be more than simply a place to buy groceries: a food co-op is a place where people meet people, a place to build community. Food co-ops usually have a place to sit down, have a coffee or a meal, and be with other people. 

In a larger sense, the Common Share Food Co-op will depend on its member-owners, both workers and consumers, to guide the business so that it can be its best self. Rather than being answerable to big-money shareholders in some distant place, co-ops are shaped by the community in which they are located. “Buy local” is more than a slogan; it’s a way of life. In towns that have a food co-op, you often hear people say, “I’ll see you at the co-op!”

Meanwhile, Amazon (which owns Whole Foods) is test-driving a new kind of supermarket. “Amazon Fresh” uses “Amazon One” technology, which is billed as a “fast, convenient, contactless identity service.” A gizmo at the entrance takes a reading of your palm, lets you in, and then you just walk out with your purchases. The system automatically debits your account. No need to say hello to anyone. And the only entity that recognizes you as an individual is the palm reading machine. Sounds Orwellian to me.

I want our co-op to provide a radical alternative to the big box chain stores. I want it to be an agent of positive, desperately needed change. Someone I know once said, “a co-op is a political action committee that just happens to sell carrots.” What could this mean in practice?

By banding together with the common purpose of building a life- and community-sustaining food store, members of the co-op — cooperators — make important decisions about the direction the business takes. For example, I believe that co-ops need to become agents promoting economic equity. How? By actively redistributing wealth within their community.

In Amherst, as in the rest of this country, there is a significant gap between rich and poor. Affordability is one of the barriers that often keeps low-income families from shopping at food co-ops. It’s true: the prices for good, wholesome, local foods tend to be higher than the offerings at big-box stores. 

I want Common Share Food Co-op to offer a means to “share the wealth.” In this system, members would be invited to have a small surcharge added to their bill at check-out, perhaps between 1% and 5%. For example, a shopper who has agreed to a 3% contribution, $50 worth of groceries would come to $51.50. Not a big deal, right? But if a enough people agreed to this modest addition to their bill, it could add up to making it much easier for less affluent individuals or families to shop at the store. 

Greater economic access to the store would translate into people across the socioeconomic spectrum being seen and heard and ultimately more present to one another. And, in being present to one another, cooperators will find their power. Drawn together by an awareness of their common humanity, they will better be able to resist an increasingly corporate world driven by a species of predatory capitalism that is hostile to independent thought, freedom, and action. 

Please join and support the Common Share Food Co-op in Amherst. It is truly a way to “think globally and act locally.”

For more information, visit Common Share’s website at Commonsharefood.coop.

Alex Kent lives in Amherst and is a past president of the Common Share Food Co-op board of directors.

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