Pages from a Popular History of Grand Rapids

New River Free Press, June 1975/Reprint

Food Co-ops for a

Small Planet:

A HOW-TO-DO-IT Manual       

 By Chiki

  • (In all organizing, the secret lies in being able to set in motion a chain of events; the greater the creativity behind it, the more effective the chain will be in setting-off more creativity.

  • (Sometimes, there may be conflict. Both criticism and conflict can be creative, if there is no desire to destroy. And, sometimes, a reversal in the chain of events may be only one more drop of sweat in the process of further creation.)

* * *

You want to be part of the solution, not a part of the problem. Here is a small, finite planet. You want to tackle the problems of hunger, malnutrition, and above all starvation. But, before you tackle the global problem, you want to be a part of the solution in your village, town, city, neighborhood. And what better way to do that in the U. S. than to encourage alternatives to the present system of distributing food?

You want to foster the growth of food co-ops.

* * *

So we come together to tackle an aspect of our existence with a concrete identifiable solution. Beneath the idea hovers all kinds of implications for our Small Planet: Here is how people can learn a cooperative way to deal with scarcity, racial and ethnic differences, and economic inequality.

Armed with a knowledge of making people feel good, of creating an atmosphere of beauty around the idea and its concrete visual manifestation, of communicating the idea within the larger community, you can go out and do your bit to encourage the new images we need to make the best of our Small Planet.

A service agency is not a co-op, for it functions on the principles of dependence. A true co-op is independent and democratic in structure. Work for it. Struggle, too.

* * *

The following HOW-TO-DO-IT is based on my experiences facilitating food co-ops in G. R. [Grand Rapids] and on Harry Kent’s The Bare Essentials: Organizing a Coop. Harry is a dedicated co-operator with the Michigan Federation of Food Coops.

Some Steps in


A Food Co-op 

1.    You begin by getting some dedicated people interested; they in turn must get other people interested.

(This is how Westown Neighborhood Food Coop did it in their flier:


  • (“The Coop is a group of Westsiders who are getting together to save money and get to know each other. The Coop provides many basic food items such as flours, oats, peas, potatoes, peanut butter, dairy products, cooking oils, and many others. Prices are lower and the food is fresher than in grocery stores because we buy directly from the warehouse or a farmer; you do you own packaging, so save your egg cartons, bags, and jars . . .


  • (“It is your Coop, you own it, you run it, and you make all of the decisions! People make a coop work!)


2.    Get people to a meeting. Elect a temporary chairperson and secretary. Discuss food problems and how a cooperative, people working together, can solve them. Decide everything democratically.

3.    Decide on identity. Who you are will determine what you want to buy/be/become. Beware of unconsciously becoming identified as a youth- or health-food-oriented co-op; you’ll turn off many who need co-ops most. Without lowering food quality, try to attract all kinds of people.

4.    Decide on whether you want to be a food buying club or a cooperative. A cooperative needs to be an independent unit, a buying club can be an appendage of another organization. Unresolved identity problems can tear apart any group in time.

5.    Select a name that best reflects what you are or intend to be.

6.    Decide on how many kinds of food you want to begin with. Besides people’s tastes, this decision should also take into account how much money you expect to have when you start.

7.    Investigate local and regional sources for bulk purchase. This is a good point at which the cooperators can start sharing responsibilities.

8.    Compare these wholesale prices [of items purchased in bulk] with retail prices at large stores. (For example, many canned goods in the smaller sizes are lower in large stores.)

9.    Choose a way to organize:

            a)    Many people who can pre-pay for 1-2 weeks.


            b)    A few people who can pre-pay [for] 2 weeks to a month.


            c)    A great many people who would like to bypass the prepayment stage because they like to shop on the spot. This method needs extra money to get started, since you need money to make all the advance bulk purchases. It also requires a certain amount of horse sense in deciding what to buy, and how much, to satisfy the needs of the target population. However, this is the method that attracts the most number of people.

10.    Decide on membership fee. Should be low enough to bring people in and yet large enough to provide money to get started. Decide on whether you want a one-time membership fee only or whether you want that as well as quarterly or annual dues. The latter helps meet some of the needs of repairing and replacing equipment.

11.    Contact local churches, foundations, and institutions for grants, loans, and small donations—to match your own effort (membership fees, dinners, dances, music concerts, rummage and bake sales, and donations from members). A good pitch in raising resources is that this is a self-help project that intends to be self-sufficient quickly and that in the long-run it will act as an inspiration for other self-help projects in the community. (In G. R., the Dyer-Ives Foundation and the Campaign for Human Development—administered locally by the board of the Human Relations Commission of the Catholic Diocese—have been very helpful in providing assistance in the form of grants and/or loans.)

Work on making contacts should be shared so that people become comfortable in performing roles that require responsibility. Shared responsibility also disperses power within a co-op, a key factor in healthy organizational growth. Sometimes, hesitant members need encouragement. At such times, it’s good to bring out the positive elements in group efforts and in making co-op contacts in the larger community.

Sometimes, it’s good for less hesitant members to say: “I can do this, but I don’t want to because I think by doing too much I’ll be reducing the cooperative element.” Or: “I will help, but only if there are other volunteers who’ll work side-by-side with me because I joined out of excitement over the cooperative nature of this undertaking.” Keep at it, if you’re successful, more people will start saying the same.

12.    Let the local media know what you are doing. They’ll like it. Self-help projects are a staple of the media in the Midwest. Media exposure arouses the interests of potential members while alerting local donors that here is a worthwhile self-help project.

13.    Of course, during all this you will have been looking for space, refrigeration, weighing scales, a cash register, a stainless steel cutting top, stainless steel knives, plastic containers . . .  And, of course, this should be a shared responsibility.
Try to get most of what you need donated. Someone may have an unused scale in a basement just crying to be used for the common good. Someone may know someone who has a refrigerator. A store may have a surplus item, a friendly landlord may have a refrigerator, a hardware store may have an extra scale. Forage around. Spread the word.

14.    Finding space for storage and distribution is the hardest part of all. But it’s not impossible. Westown Neighborhood Food Coop found a vacant store front on Butterworth that the property owner was glad to rent for $50 (utilities included) because no one had wanted to rent it for a long, long time.

(The best deals are available in what realtors like to describe as “depressed areas” or “going downhill.” For sure, the presence of an invigorating community activity like a food co-op can reverse the trend.) The Community Food Coop in the Northeast found space in the basement of the Epworth United Methodist Church.

The questions you need to ask in space selection are:

        A)    Does the place meet health, electrical, plumbing, fire, and zoning regulations.

        B)    Is the place visible? A visible co-op attracts more members.

        C)    Is it centrally located?

        D)    Is there space for growing?

        E)    Is there enough parking space?

If any organization (church, social service agency, neighborhood association) provides space, be sure you are not going to lose your independence. The interests of a co-op are not necessarily the same as those of any other institution. Work out a fair operating agreement that respects each other’s autonomy, including the freedom to move out to some other more suitable place.

(The by-laws in this section of NRFP [New River Free Press] help maintain a co-op’s independence.) This is important since co-ops are in fashion and many “service” organizations would like to claim the allegiance of a co-op to reinforce their own allegiance to the laws of bureaucratic growth. Note that free space provided by another organization is a subsidy element that a co-op needs to take into account when formulating a mark-up designed to build capital for growth.

15.    Decide how many hours of work-commitment you will require for each of you. Also, how many hours a member must put in before having the right to vote.

16.    Decide how many meetings a member must attend to remain in good standing.

17.    Form committees to take care of inventory and/or listing latest prices; ordering and/or collecting prepayments; trucking; breakdown on arrival, checking invoice against bill; cleanup; bookkeeping and finances; equipment care; education and publicity; record keeping; staffing during co-op store hours. Committees help spread co-op involvement. Chairpersons of each committee could form a steering committee to direct co-op on the path set at monthly general membership meetings.

18.    Decide on mark-up above cost. (Cost = cost of food + rent + utilities + maintenance of equipment + containers + trucking + spillage and spoilage.) Take into account your needs to expand.

19.    Draw up by-laws. Don’t forget that you need to protect your independence and your cooperative character. Decide whether you want your members to sign the by-laws before joining.

20.    Decide whether you want a volunteer co-op coordinator or a paid one. (Pay is normally subsistence wages. To begin with a volunteer coordinator will work very well.)

21.    Call the United States Department of Agriculture for permission to accept food stamps.

22.    Set a deadline to start. The Community Food Coop set itself a 3-week deadline and kept it.

23.    Send out fliers announcing your opening day. Invite the local media to take a look at what you’re doing before opening day.

24.    Have an Open House on Day One.

25.    Keep together—the biggest challenge.

26.    Get a lawyer to work for free on incorporation papers and nonprofit Internal Revenue Service status.

27.    When you get too big, split up into several co-ops.

For the cooperative to succeed in its goals people have to COOPERATE. CO-OPERATE!

* * *



#      #      #

QUOTE   The new approach which co-op members take up is an expression of autonomy and greater control over the forces that shape their lives.     UNQUOTE

by William Ronco, Beacon Press, Boston, 1974

Ronco's book is a useful manual for starting and operating a food cooperative. In addition to presenting alternative methods of doing it the cooperative way through the examples of active co-ops (heightened by word pictures of some of them), Ronco provides a directory of over 1,000 co-ops in the U. S. and a list of wholesalers that supply co-ops.


New River Free Press, June 1975/Reprint

New River Free Press:

Your Friendly Guide To Urban Survival & Improvement

From 1973 to 1977 Grand Rapids' Independent Voice

This community newspaper was lovingly hand-crafted on an
IBM Selectric. All its Bookman headlines were produced by
individually hand-pressing transfer lettering.

--Michael Chacko Daniels, Editor & Publisher

Reprinted as part of a new, continuing
Grand Rapids, Michigan,
Popular History Project

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Posted on Wednesday, April 27, 2005 at 09:34PM by Registered CommenterMichael Chacko Daniels | CommentsPost a Comment