By Desmond Jolly and Luis Sierra
The United Nations has declared 2012 as the International Year of Cooperatives, highlighting the massive contributions of cooperatives to global socio-economic development. In its declaration, the Assembly noted that cooperatives generate employment, promote social integration and lift people out of poverty.
Locally, the Davis Food Cooperative is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Globally, more than 1 billion people in 100-plus nations are members of cooperatives that generate more than 100 million jobs around the world. In California, more than 10 million residents belong.
Cooperatives are diverse. For example, under the World Council of Credit Unions, 49,000 credit unions serve 177 million members in 96 countries, and under the European Association of Cooperative Banks, 4,200 banks serve 149 million members.
In the United States, 900 cooperatives produce electricity for 37 million households. Cooperatives are found throughout the food chain, from inputs to marketing to consumption. Co-ops increase economies of scale in production and marketing, enabling members to increase their incomes and quality of living.
In Norway, New Zealand and the U.S., co-ops produce 80 to 99 percent of the milk produced. In Korea, co-ops produce 70 percent of the fish and in Brazil, co-ops represent 40 percent of agriculture. In the U.S., agricultural co-ops have nearly 3 million members and do more than $100 billion of business.
Over its first 40 years, the Davis Food Cooperative has grown from an idealistic counter-cultural alternative — a buying club that operated out of a house on the west side of the UC Davis campus — to become a Davis community icon along with the Davis Farmers Market and the UCD Arboretum. Early on, the buying club moved off campus and, after a few years — when it had grown to about 300 members and needed a more suitable space — moved to a 500-square-foot unit on L Street.
Today, the Co-op sells its unique array of organic, sustainable, conventional and locally sourced products in a 25,000-square-foot building that it owns. In turn, the Co-op is owned by its 10,000 members, mostly from the Davis community.
Davis supports the Co-op because the Co-op is deeply embedded in the community; it sponsors a diversity of education, outreach and service efforts. It is involved in “One Farm at a Time,” an effort to save family farming for future generations. Its cash and in-kind contributions to dozens of community organizations are substantial — more than $72,000 last year. Because of its deep roots in the community, the Co-op has been able to withstand each new wave of competition in the grocery business.
In her 2002 Small Farm News article, Ann Evans, one of the founders of the Co-op, quotes one Page Webb as to her motivations for patronizing the Co-op: “There’s more to the co-op than just food, the environmental aspect and sense of community and ownership. Everything is interconnected for me.
“I have a say in what products are available there. I can bring my own bags, buy fair-traded coffee and buy locally grown organic produce or not. I can do as much or as little as works for me. The co-op offers me a variety of choices.”
It is this same set of motivations that is driving a renaissance of interest in cooperatives in California. Placerville’s Natural Foods Cooperative started up in 2011 when 500 people got together, raised capital and bought out Noah’s Ark.
Lake County’s Community Cooperative began as a small group of citizens with a vision to develop a local food system that would include community gardens, farmers markets and local food distribution. They started with an online buying club for organic foods — not easily accessible in Lake County. The group sourced products from local producers in Lake and Yolo counties, as well as from wholesalers.
Other cooperatives are developing in rural Sonoma County, in Vallejo, Riverside, Reno, San Clemente and Altadena. And following Cooperative Principles, more established co-ops are assisting new startups.
When Reno’s Great basin Co-op ran into financial difficulty, Quincy Natural Foods Co-op helped it review its pricing policies. Now the Co-op is five times as large.
Likewise, Davis Food Co-op and Briar Patch Food Co-op provided training to Placerville’s startup. And Ocean Beach Co-op recently shared its information technology expert with Point Arena Market, a small startup.
So while big-box stores and large chains of organic and convenience stores have grown, the alternative food system — locally owned and democratically governed — continues to take root and thrive in our food system.
This is indeed the year of the Co-op. Happy Birthday, Davis Food Co-op!
— Desmond Jolly, an agricultural economist, is a member of the board of directors of the Davis Food Co-op; director emeritus of the University of California’s Statewide Small Farm Program; and a former vice chair of the USDA National Commission on Small Farms. Luis Sierra is assistant director of the California Center for Cooperative Development.