Democracy exists in many forms, but we rarely pay mind to those forms that govern our basic needs. Take food, for instance. The quintessential example of the democracy of food lies in a subtle, yet widespread movement which combines simple commerce and good health: the natural food cooperative.
A political theory professor once said that only three things are real: you, nature, and the relationship between you and nature: economics. The co-op exists as the nexus of this relationship–the trading post where you and nature thrive off each other.
Co-op owners (also called member-owners) are health-minded shoppers that seek excellence in food quality standards. They prefer quality natural foods and products that have been “grown, processed, packaged, transported and stored without the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, artificial additives, preservatives, genetic modification, or irradiation” (New Pioneer Co-op Fresh Food Market info brochure).
The answer to these demands is the natural food co-op; it operates under a system of member governance and is a socially responsible member of the community it serves. The co-op is typically non-profit, which means that any profits accrued by the retail store (after the costs of operation, labor, capital improvements, etc.) are returned to the community through owner specials, public events, educational programs, and charitable donations (Deep Roots Market Owner’s Manual).
Do you have to work at the co-op to be considered an owner? No, but volunteering definitely has some perks. Members who work there, even for a few hours, are entitles to certain benefits.
Typical Benefits of Member Work Programs
- Lower prices. Owners can qualify for ranging discounts for volunteering weekly or monthly.
- Education. Owners who volunteer work hours at their co-ops become more informed shoppers and gain valuable experience in cooperative member work.
- Meet people with similar environmental and social values.
Working and non-working owners reap the benefits of discounts that usually aren’t available to non-owner shoppers. Owner shares are typically purchased for around $20-$30, and owners make that payment annually to retain their portion of the shared equity.
As a co-op owner, you have rights and responsibilities. Owner rights primarily include enjoying the benefits discussed earlier, particularly product discounts; receiving information; participating in co-op leadership and governance, which often includes voting in co-op elections; volunteering work hours; and shopping in an environment that reflects the co-op’s mission and beliefs (Davis Food Co-op Owner’s Manual).
Owners are obligated to support the co-op with their purchases, and to treat the store as if it were their own (because technically, it is). Furthermore, owners are encouraged to take an interest, and make use of the information available to them concerning the co-op and the community at large. You can choose your level of participation, but remember that the co-op can only act in your interest when you articulate it.
Keep in mind, too, the structure for co-op governance; it is an interdependent, hierarchical system, of which presidents, board members, voters, and regular shoppers are all of indispensable value. The co-op is an entity “comprised of individuals who place the long-term viability of the co-op ahead of the aim of maximizing individual financial benefits” (Deep Roots Market Owner’s Manual).
Altruism and democracy prevail at a properly functioning co-op. Use it to your advantage.