Rich Larochelle knows about Co-ops. He’s spent over forty years of his life working for them, first with the federal Rural Electrification Administration, and later working as the chairman of the National Rural Utility Cooperative Finance Corporation. So when he moved here three years ago and met a group of people who wanted to start their own Food Co-op (including founding board members Angie Noll, Gloria Lloyd, Valerie Setzer, and Laurel Major), it only felt natural for him to help them get it started.
What Is A Food Co-op?
Many people, however, aren’t really sure what a food co-op is even though they’ve been around for over a hundred years. The first co-op actually began in 1844 in Rochdale, England when a group of weavers banded together to buy and sell food items they otherwise couldn’t afford. They primarily dealt with staples: butter, flour, and some candles.
“Food co-ops in the U.S. have really had three waves,” says Larochelle. “The first was certainly during The Great Depression when people joined together to have healthy, affordable foods.”
In 1936, residents of New Hampshire and Vermont formed the Hanover Consumer’s Club, pooling orders for potatoes, oranges, and syrup, and arranging discounts on gasoline and fuel oil from local suppliers. The Hanover co-op is still around, and it is “just an awesome place,” says Larochelle.
The second wave came in the 70’s and 80’s when consumers wanted natural unprocessed foods, which generally weren’t widely available during that time. Roanoke Food Co-op was started during that time and has turned into a large, fully-developed store. We’re in the middle of the third wave right now.
“There are over 125 food co-ops forming in the U.S,” says Larochelle
In its basic form, a co-op is an organization that’s owned by members. The primary mission of a food co-op is to provide benefits to its members and give back to the community. The mission statement on the Fredericksburg Food Co-op’s website states that “[o]ur focus will be on locally grown and locally sourced products. We will offer a great selection of organic and natural foods and household products.” It also aims to implement “the most environmentally sustainable practices” with a “special focus on sharing best practices on nutrition [and] wellness.”
A Vision For Fredericksburg
“The Fredericksburg Food Co-op will be a community resource that buys from local food producers,” says Larochelle. One of its main goals is to keep “money local, and offer affordable member discounts and a community meeting place–a place for educational programs regarding food and health.”
Food Co-ops do this by following seven operating principles:
- Voluntary and Open Membership
- Democratic Member Control
- Member Economic Participation
- Autonomy & Independence
- Education, Training, Information
- Cooperation Among Cooperatives
- Concern For Community
The relationship between good health and a lifestyle that includes healthy eating habits has long been established, which is why offering a variety of healthy products is one of the co-op’s three primary goals. The second is to educate the community on that link, as well as to help solve problems in respect to the environment. The third goal is financial: co-ops keep money local by purchasing from local producers. In addition, all of the profit goes to members.
“Profit is allocated to members based on how much shopping they do there,” says Larochelle. “Members can also make loans to the co-op (with earned interest).”
The co-op will offer affordable groceries, and members receive discounts. It will also offer classes and educational programs regarding food and health.
In fact, Patrick Neustatter, a local medical doctor, did a session for the co-op at the downtown library on the link between food and cholesterol. Jill Harrington has done a session on autoimmune disease and diet. And they’ve shown the movie Forks Over Knives at Mary Washington Hospital.
“We’re really focused on providing the best information we can about the connection between food and health,” much of which is also posted on their website and Facebook page.
Once opened, the Food Co-op’s commitment to education will accelerate. The board intends to provide classes on eating healthy on a budget, healthy cooking, sharing recipes on healthy foods, and vegetarian and gluten free eating. They also hope to have a dietician in the store on a weekly basis so that shoppers can ask questions about their food as they shop. And they even plan on providing health and beauty items that might not be widely available.
An Excellent Start
“The success has been the growth rate,” says Larochelle. “The Food Co-op Initiative looked at our numbers and said ‘You’re in the top quartile’.”
This means the Fredericksburg Food Co-op is in the top 75% of other startups. They also stated that they’ve never seen a Co-op grow as consistently month to month as the Fredericksburg Food Co-op. Larochelle credits the diligence of the volunteers and board members for this. Together, they attend multiple functions a month, espousing the benefits of the Co-op, building the email list, and signing up members. They have a space at the Farmer’s Market every Saturday, they send out a monthly newsletter, and post on social media at least twice a day.
“We have 2,800 people following us on Facebook,” says Larochelle. “And people can go to our website (fredericksburgfoodcoop.com) and find plenty of information there.
So how soon will the store open?
At 300 members, the Board ordered a market study, which identified demographics of the area, then compared those demographics of successful Co-ops in other areas. After estimating annual sales and interest, the study concluded that Fredericksburg is a great place to open a food co-op.
There are currently 450 members. “At 800 members we’ll identify a location and lock it down,” says Larochelle. When they reach 1,000 members, they’ll open the store.
They’re on-pace for acquiring the location in 2018 and opening in 2019.
How To Get Involved
If you’re interested in more information or want to sign up to be a member, go to fredericksburgfoodcoop.com. Anybody can join. All are welcome.
A lifetime membership is $200. Members can pay all at once or in installments over the course of 10-20 months. They can join online or they can join at one of the many events.
“It’s a chance to work together to make a difference,” says Larochelle. “We can make a difference for our local economy. We can own our own destiny! It’s doable, within reach, and encourage everyone to consider it.”
Their annual meeting is on Sunday, September 24 from 3:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Headquarters Library, 1201 Caroline Street, Fredericksburg, VA
The Co-op will hold it’s annual election and update. Wonderful, healthy refreshments will be served. Come on out and socialize with fellow members, prospective members, and friends.