The country’s vigorous focus on environmental issues has turned more people’s attention toward food — natural food, organic food, local food, free-range food — and Stuart Reid, development specialist of the Food Co-op 500 Program, a fledgling organization that helps start-up food co-ops, thinks the atmosphere is a good one in which to launch a food cooperative. There are slightly fewer than 300 food co-ops in the United States right now; Food Co-op 500 hopes to raise that number to 500 “in the foreseeable future,” Reid says. “The awareness of food issues right now is so high.”
Combine that heightened awareness with collective distrust of large corporations, and Portland’s Buy Local fever, and the absence of a food co-op does seem glaring.
“We’ve recognized a void — it’s yet to be determined whether it’s a collective need,” says Sarah Miller, 34, a Goddard College graduate student and one of the core members of the PFC planning group. What Miller and her collaborators mean is that while the absence of local, natural shopping options in Portland is obvious, they’ve yet to determine the extent to which the community wants such options — and in what manifestation.
In fact, much about Portland’s potential co-op remains unknown, including where it will be located (the group is investigating the space currently occupied by Wild Oats, but that’s largely a pipe dream), and just how local this “buy local” organization will be — for example, if broccoli doesn’t grow in Maine during the winter, will co-op shoppers be forced to go without it for the duration of the colder months? Should that be the case, Portlanders wouldn’t go hungry — there are always root-cellar-able fruits and veggies like potatoes or apples, and preservable ones, like tomatoes or zucchini (broccoli, for that matter, could be sold in a preserved form, frozen or canned). But it would certainly be an interesting business model, one that values principle (i.e., seasonal eating) over proven sales tactics (i.e., giving the customer what they want, when they want it).
Certainly, an enlightened customer may accept less selection, if he or she is shopping specifically for a ‘local-food’ experience. But Cooper, of Damariscotta’s Rising Tide, cautions: “You have to be careful of letting your philosophy interfere with your customers.” Rising Tide, like many other Northeastern co-ops, ships in organic produce from elsewhere during the winter months.
Steps in the right direction
For all the PFC’s TBDs, there are tangible signs of progress as well. For example, the PFC decision-making committee — which will provide leadership until the election of a board of directors — now has a written charter, and its goals include the drafting of a set of PFC by-laws, the creation of a business plan, and the assembly of formal PFC membership. Hundreds of members will need to be on board before the co-op can have a realistic shot at opening and surviving. Much of the start-up capital — around 60 percent — is expected to come from membership fees and one-time member loans. The PFC hopes to have between 500-1,000 members aboard before opening a storefront.