Grass-roots community organizing efforts that began last fall to establish a cooperative grocery store on the East Side of St. Paul are gaining momentum. More than 100 residents attended a community meeting in October 2011, from which a steering committee formed. The organization eventually established the Gateway Food Cooperative and, in April, began recruiting member-owners. To date, nearly 130 households have purchased a share in the cooperative or “co-op,” which could open as a retail food store in two to four years.
“Educating people about what a co-op is and is not and what it can mean to the East Side, is an important aspect of our organizing work,” says Sarah Geving, co-chair of the Gateway Steering Committee. According to Geving, “That the community, rather than an individual or a remote corporation, owns and benefits from the profits of the business, are reasons many have joined. Others really want better access to healthy food.”
A co-op is a business which can range in size from a small store-front to a large, Fortune 500 company. In many ways, co-ops are like any other business; but in several important ways they are different. Co-ops are owned and democratically controlled by their members – the people who use the co-op’s services or buy its goods – not by outside investors; their boards of directors are elected from within the membership.
Other unique features of the co-op business model include the way surplus revenues are returned to members, and the emphasis on serving the members’ needs, rather than just seeking to generate profits. Some co-ops are exclusively for the use of members. In the case of Gateway, and most Twin Cities’ food co-ops, you will not need to be a member in order to shop there.
“We really want to see this as a community-owned business that is representative of and benefits the whole community,” says Tracy Sides, Chair of Gateway’s Membership and Outreach Subcommittee. She continues, “greater access to healthy foods, more jobs, more locally-sourced products, and more money staying in our local economy all contribute to improved health and wealth for the East Side.”
When asked about how they plan to accomplish this goal of inclusion, Sides said that the Steering Committee is building relationships with community organizations that serve residents of different ethnic groups, for example, by participating in the East Side Prosperity Campaign, an organization that fosters collaboration across cultures and communities on the East Side.
She said they are also reaching out through the social connections of existing members and volunteers and in 2013 intend to collaboratively develop an East Side cookbook that features healthy renditions of traditional ethnic dishes.
Gateway’s effort to reach out to diverse groups during the organizing phase of co-op development is unique among modern food co-op start-ups. In fact, this was one of the reasons the Gateway Food Cooperative was awarded a $10,000 grant in September from the Food Cooperative Initiative (FCI), a national non-profit organization that works with community groups across the United States to help them organize new retail food co-ops as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Another characteristic of Gateway’s situation that FCI noted as unique among food co-op start-ups, is the interest of Mississippi Market Natural Foods Co-op, an established St. Paul co-op with two existing locations and 12% sales growth in 2011, in opening a retail location on the East Side. Mississippi Market responded to the City of St. Paul’s request for interest in developing the old Hospital Linen Site at East 7th Street and Bates Avenue.
The Gateway Steering Committee welcomes the possibility of a Mississippi Market at the Hospital Linen Site for two main reasons, according to Geving. “Mississippi Market building a store would get the doors open about 2 years earlier than we could, because they are already established.” And second, “Our understanding is that the more member-owners we can recruit, the stronger our voice would be in helping create a third Mississippi Market location that is uniquely ‘East Side,’” she says. Regardless of Mississippi Market’s plans, Geving says Gateway is aiming to have 300 member-owners by June 1, 2013.
For more information, you may contact the Gateway Food Cooperative at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website: www. gatewaytofood.org.