The Necessity for Coop Designs: Food Deserts Turn to Co-ops for Local Grocery Stores

On November 6, a New York times story In Land of Plenty, Few Places to Find Fresh Foods described the challenges of small, rural communities maintaining local shopping options.

The article led with an example of a small town in the Midwest that is a center for the farming community. As in many other small communities across the country local grocery stores have closed in the face of large regional competitors. “It’s the story of every small town; it’s a domino effect and it starts with the grocery store,” states a resident of Winchester, Illinois, a town of 1,500.

The irony of over five million people who make their living feeding the rest of the nation but having to drive at least 10 miles to buy groceries, has prompted local residents in a number of these circumstances to seek new options.

One solution is to set up cooperatives financed by residents to start their own stores. “This isn’t charity. This was self-responsibility. If you want a grocery store in town, you have to step up to it,” says one of the founders of Winchester’s for-profit coop which opened in August 2018.

The article describes multiple volunteers contributing community help and resources. Radishes and spinach are delivered from a local farm; milk from a local dairy; beef from a nearby ranch and eggs are delivered once per week by a local farmer.

Co-op design allowed local residents to mobilize resources for solutions that larger firms do not see as practical or profitable.

Parallel histories for farmers and consumer finance

Farming coops are one of the creators of this country’s collaborative business model at the turn of the 19th century. So popular were cooperative solutions in rural America, that the original bureau for federal credit unions was assigned to the Department of Agriculture in 1934 when the Federal Credit Union Act was enacted.

Credit unions in the past and even today actively serve “credit deserts”. These are communities where no locally-owned financial institutions are located. Credit policy and lending priorities are set at headquarters located outside the areas served.

Relevance for credit unions

Should these “fresh” initiatives be borne in mind as several hundred local credit unions per year cancel their charters to merge with larger, often out-of-area, credit unions? Is giving up local control, leadership and resource allocation compromising the unique capacity of credit unions to fill voids left by larger financial competitors?

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