The member-owners of food cooperatives are typically consumers, however some are worker-owned or share decision making among both workers and consumers. Consumer food cooperatives are formed to gain control over the type and quality of products available and to obtain lower food prices and include retail supermarkets with one or more outlets and buying groups with a few to hundreds of members. Many cooperative supermarkets began as small buying clubs and developed into storefront cooperatives as membership increased.
The first consumer food cooperative in California was formed in 1867 in San Francisco. Although the modest daily sales were financially sound, the store lasted only a short time. In the 1930s there was a burst of cooperative activity throughout the United States in response to the Great Depression. In California, the Berkeley food cooperative was formed in 1937. Although the 1988 closure of the Berkeley food cooperative was a setback for the consumer cooperative movement, many other food cooperatives in California are thriving and expanding; most have been formed within the last 40 years. In addition to traditional economic benefits associated with cooperative food purchasing, these cooperatives often emphasize nutritional quality, production and distribution alternatives such as organic lines and free trade, and emphasize offering information and education so that consumers can make informed choices.
Members of food cooperatives democratically elect a board of directors who make policy decisions about the cooperative. Most cooperative markets hire a manager to oversee the day-today administration of the store. These cooperatives typically allow anyone to shop at the store but offer discounts and/or “patronage dividends” to members. A patronage dividend is the member’s share of year-end profits based on the amount of purchases made over that same time period. Sometimes cooperatives offer price discounts for members who contribute volunteer time to the cooperative.
In addition to storefront food cooperatives, there are numerous buying clubs in California. In this model, households join together to buy food in bulk to take advantage of quantity discounts and to obtain a range of foods not available locally. Buying clubs are generally run on a volunteer basis by members, with a majority of members volunteering time.
*For more information about food cooperatives that are worker owned—see: “Worker Cooperative.” Sometimes, consumer cooperatives contract with a worker cooperative or collective to provide staffing services.