Co-Ops Come Up: In the Birthplace of the Cooperative Movement, Residents Embrace a Time-Tested Model
by Carrie Jackson and Karen G. Meshkov
In a world that seems to be getting bigger and busier every day, many people in the Philadelphia area and across the country are turning to cooperative businesses to form deeper connections with their community, and to feel a sense of ownership and control over the products and services that are a part of their lives. There are currently 30,000 member-owned cooperative businesses functioning in the U.S., serving 350 million member households.
Cooperatively run businesses and organizations are nothing new to the Philadelphia area—Benjamin Franklin founded the country’s first in 1752. The Philadelphia Contributionship insurance company was established by firefighters on the premise that members would share the risks of insuring against fire damage. The business is still in operation today, and visitors can tour the historic site and museum in Old City. Clearly, this is an idea with staying power.
The term “co-op” is a popular shorthand for “cooperatively run business”. Such a business is owned and operated by its members, instead of a single proprietor or corporation. There is an emphasis on a democratic engagement, and on building community cohesion and wealth, irrespective of its size or structure. Food markets and farms, credit unions, workers councils, housing communities, art galleries, utilities, schools: they can all be organized in this way. The “Seven Cooperative Principles”, as they are known, are the philosophical guidelines that govern all of the cooperative organizations in the U.S. and abroad. These include voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; members’ economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training and information; cooperation among cooperatives; and concern for community.
Here in the birthplace of cooperative businesses, what’s old is new again. One needs only to look at the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance (PACA), an organization representing over 120 operating co-ops and eight more in the process of formation, to see that this colonial-born business model is right on time for modern-day residents. Four area co-ops offer insights on how they apply the shared cooperative principles driving their growing organizations, and what makes them unique as they strive to meet the needs of the distinct communities they serve.
CREEKSIDE CO-OP Creekside Co-Op is a member-owned food market that opened in Cheltenham Township in 2012. With over 2,300 members and growing, Vice President Jeff Cohen says that much of what they do involves keeping up with their mission of providing products and services that are responsive to the values of its ownership, and fostering connections among the people of its diverse community. “Our priority is the needs and wants of the members, with a focus on sustainability. We want people to be able to get all their basic products at Creekside and know that they are helping to support their local community. We also provide niche local items, such as high quality, sustainable seafood, fresh hummus and kosher hot sauce. We offer catering and grab-and-go items, so people can get off the train and pick up dinner on their way home,” says Cohen.
AMBLER FOOD CO-OP Ambler Food Co-Op, which is moving forward to open a free-standing store in downtown Ambler, has a strong focus on bettering the physical, social and economic strength of the local community. “Many of our members don’t have cars, or they are low-income. They need a place that is easily accessible and isn’t taking money away from other local businesses,” says Katherine Niesen, Ambler membership coordinator. Local businesses, individual consumers and families are all encouraged to be involved. Ambler President Kathleen Casey adds, “Currently, members get discounts at over 30 local businesses. As owners, each member household makes a real contribution to their community, because without them the co-op doesn’t exist. Collectively, members have tremendous local impact, shaping the co-op according to their needs and creating a motivation to establish a great, community-focused, sustainable business. In other words, co-ops are special because they epitomize strong business, with community values locked in at its core.”
DOYLESTOWN FOOD MARKET Doylestown Food Market, which began as a Food Club in 2009 and is now a thriving market, sells products from over 100 local farmers and producers. Doylestown President John LaSala elaborates, “We provide daily, year-round access to products that come from local farms and producers, including produce, meat, dairy and eggs, as well as a wide range of local products, from sauces to snacks to health and beauty aids. Our emphasis is on products grown or manufactured within 100 miles of Doylestown, and we try to stay hyper-local, staying within 35 miles or so whenever we can.”
US SERVER NET How Carson is the chief technology officer and operations manager for US Server Net, which provides web and email hosting to its members. “We have a customized suite of hardware and software that is optimized to run WordPress sites quickly, and each subscriber site is hardened with additional security software that makes it less hackable. Members have an option to work part-time for hosting credits, join one of our committees or become members of our Advisory Board. Members who have a service to offer, such as graphic design, photography, videography, writing, editing or marketing are encouraged to offer member-to-member discounts,” says Carson.
Local co-ops have an added friend in Natural Awakenings, which has partnered with them via a media sponsorship program. Karen G. Meshkov, publisher and director of advertising partnerships, designed and implemented the program to provide in-kind marketing campaigns to select local cooperatives. “We created this media sponsorship program because we feel that the cooperative principles are deeply aligned with the mission of our magazine and our emphasis on building engaged, awakened communities,” says Meshkov. “We feel a kinship with these co-ops: our magazine is funded solely by our advertising ‘members’ and we dedicate ourselves to bringing their healthy-living message to our community. By working together, in a symbiotic relationship, we are ‘Making the Awakening’ in Bucks and Montgomery counties.”
Carrie Jackson is a frequent writer for Natural Awakenings. Connect at [email protected].