The September 2012 closing of an Albertsons grocery store in central Long Beach inadvertently opened the door to a new idea. Residents began soliciting chains like Trader Joe's and Sprouts to come in, only to have their letter-writing campaigns rebuffed on the grounds that the area didn't fit demographic needs (aka not white enough). Out of the frustrating experience, neighbors began wondering if a co-op grocery store might better serve the community and its needs.
"If nobody is going to open a market, maybe we should open it ourselves," says Damon Lawrence, a founding board member of Long Beach Grocery Co-op.
He originally got the idea from a vacation he took with his wife in Portland, Oregon. It was there that Lawrence got his first co-op experience, when a cashier at the Alberta Co-op Grocery store asked him if he was a member. "What does that mean?" Lawrence replied. He got the whole spiel in response. "This is owned by the community, really?" he asked in bewilderment.
If readers are bewildered too, it's because cooperatives as an alternative economy don't get much media play. They're businesses owned and managed by workers and consumers as opposed to corporate structuring. About 30,000 co-operatives currently employ 2 million people in the United States, according to the National Co-operative Business Association.
Thinking of replicating the consumer-owned model in his own hometown, Lawrence began researching and was surprised by what he learned. "They are all over the United States, even in the South!" he says. Locally, in Southern California, grocery stores organized in such a way are rarer though. San Diego and Isla Vista have them, but OC and the IE don't. Lawrence did find Co-opportunity Natural Foods in Santa Monica and headed out to find out more. "I was floored by how well it was run, how friendly and knowledgeable the staff was," he says. Their sustainable food system principles impressed him as well.
The experience convinced Lawrence further to spearhead the effort in his city. That night he turned to Facebook and started a simple "Long Beach Grocery Co-op" page. It struck a nerve overnight as he awoke to 200 "likes."The site now inches towards 7,000. Board members introduced themselves offline recently as they set up a booth for the city's Green Prize Festival. Onlookers met them with enthusiasm.
With the idea taken out into the public, the community is looking to make a consumer-owned co-op a reality. The journey began with Food Co-op Initiative, a national non-profit that helps interested parties through the process. They advised educational outreach as a first step. "Our aim is to provide as much locally grown produce to help independent farmers in our area feed as many people as we possibly can in Long Beach," says Lawrence. Imagining the future, he sees a space that looks like a regular grocery store with a deli and coffee bar with organic grinds but with no place for processed foods.
To see that vision through, enough people have to pledge for a lifetime $200 membership share in the co-op. There's price discount benefits, but more importantly, he says being a part of a consumer-owned store entails economic democracy. "Members will be able to vote on how the co-op is run and who is part of the board," he adds. But first, equity must be raised. "We're probably going to need 3,000 signed-up members–that would give us $600,000."
Though that hasn't happened yet, that doesn't mean Lawrence and others in the co-op movement aren't already scoping out locations. They are taking into consideration things like adequate parking but also put a premium on finding a spot in working-class Long Beach, where access to organic produce is limited.
Building a healthier community through healthy food is the ideal. Job creation for locals at good wages and benefits is just part of mix. In a co-op, the unquestioned profit-for-profit's sake maxim of the U.S. economy is turned on its head. "The idea is that we can take this commodity called food and use the profits to help the community," says Lawrence.
"In 2011, Long Beach spent $652 million in groceries," he notes of his research. "If we can recoup a tenth of that with a co-op and recirculate that money back into the community, we can make a huge impact!"
Learn more about the Long Beach Grocery Co-op effort online.