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How Grocery Co-Ops Are Taking on Food Justice and Equity

Building a successful co-op should also be “rooted in justice, equity, and a holistic view of the world”


This story was originally published on Civil Eats.

On a corner lot in the North End of Detroit, the the framing is underway for a Black-led, community-owned grocery cooperative, the first of its type in the city in recent times. Set to open in August 2023, the Detroit People’s Food Co-op will provide the neighborhood’s residents — who are predominantly low- and middle-income African Americans and have long lacked a high-quality, nearby grocery store — an easy source for healthy food.

Malik Yakini, executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, the organization behind the co-op, says the grocery store will address food security, but its mission is bigger than that.

“You can have a Walmart move into a neighborhood and they can provide plenty of food and address food insecurity, but all the profits are extracted from the community,” he explains. “What we’re trying to do is activate the agency within our community so that people see themselves as having the ability to shape not only the food system but also the other systems that have influence over our lives.”

Rather than being owned by a corporation, family, or individual, modern-day grocery co-ops are owned and managed by the community members who shop there. When people buy in and become member-owners, they gain access to financial rewards as well as the right to weigh in on how the co-op is run. Non-owners can shop at most co-ops as well.

There is a long, often hidden history of Black Americans using the co-op model to thrive in the face of systemic racism. Even so, many of the grocery co-ops in the U.S. today were founded in the 1970s and ’80s by educated, affluent white people to provide natural and organic food they couldn’t easily find elsewhere, and they’ve largely served that demographic ever since.

Over the last decade, however, more co-ops rooted in the Black community have taken shape, and the co-op movement as a whole has increasingly shifted its focus from providing natural and organic foods to addressing a different need — the lack of racial equity and food justice. Since 2016, the Food Co-op Initiative (FCI), a Minnesota-based organization that advises and supports startup food co-ops, has seen the number of BIPOC-led co-ops it supports more than double, from seven to 17. The overall number of co-ops FCI works with has also grown, from 62 to 93 — and many establishments not explicitly led by people of color are taking seriously the quest for racial equity.

A number of factors have driven the co-op movement’s new focus on food justice. Because mainstream establishments like Whole Foods and Walmart now make organics more readily available, co-ops are no longer required for that purpose alone and are well-positioned to solve a different problem. In addition, the pandemic revealed the brittleness of the supply chain, and the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 prompted a wider recognition of the racial inequity in America inside many white-led institutions.

“When we’re in crisis, we notice what’s inequitable; we notice what’s not working,” says JQ Hannah, FCI’s assistant director. “We’ve heard from people from all communities that this moment had given them the pause to discover cooperation. And they’re like, ‘Oh, we need a different way to do this.’ Also, the people whose communities were hit hardest were done with trusting the system to solve it.”

C.E. Pugh, the CEO of co-op member association National Co+op Grocers (NCG), says there has been “a lot of soul searching and reflection” among leaders of the grocery co-op movement in recent years. “I would say the movement as a whole is really taking seriously and putting their money where their heart is and working at least within our organization and with each other to serve a more diverse community,” he says.

Signage in a produce section in a grocery.
Inside Gem City Market in Dayton, Ohio.

Serving More of the Community

While the shift to serving non-white and disadvantaged communities has been happening for years, the national traumas of 2020 really sped things up, says Hannah. “The funding rightly shifted very quickly to putting the money back in the hands of Black organizers to address food sovereignty,” they say. “Those communities were already doing the work, so they were ready for that influx of resources, and it has really exploded things.”

Black-led Gem City Market launched early in the pandemic in Dayton, Ohio, and a number of other Black-led cooperatives are in the process of opening, including the Detroit People’s Food Co-op, the North Flint Food Market, Little Africa Food Co-op in Cleveland, Fertile Ground in Raleigh, and the SoLA Food Co-op in South Los Angeles. The National Black Food & Justice Alliance (NBFJA) has been a big supporter of these organizations, convening regular meetings among more than a dozen Black-led groups in the process of starting cooperatives, Yakini says.

In addition, existing co-ops are also looking to broaden their customer bases to better reflect their communities. Every neighborhood that NCG markets serve is becoming more diverse, says Pugh. “We’ve done a great job of serving a narrow slice of our communities,” he says. “But how can we serve the better serve the entire community?”

One challenge in serving lower-income customers, Pugh continues, is figuring out how to lower the price point without compromising too much on other values. Many co-ops in the NCG network are trying to offer more non-organic food options, which tend to be less expensive. “We do a lot of volume of natural and organic, and we have good buying power on that side,” Pugh says. “We have not developed that on the non-organic side of the supply chain, but that’s a work in progress.”

Hannah notes, however, that some BIPOC communities are not interested in conventional food. “It’s a moment to think very carefully about throwing food values under the bus in in the pursuit of being affordable,” they say.

In Detroit, the new co-op plans to offer 80 percent natural and organic foods and 20 percent conventional foods in an effort to strike a balance between making food financially accessible to shoppers and paying a respectable wage to grocery store employees, as well as the workers further up the supply chain. “We’re trying to create the most fair situation we can create,” Yakini says.

Weathering the Pandemic and Workforce Shakeups

Over the last few years, co-op leaders have had to continuously adjust how they operate to survive constantly changing conditions. In the early days of the pandemic, co-ops’ tight connections to their local communities enabled them to step in and help farmers get their food to local markets when national supply chains broke down, and many experienced their largest-ever sales days.

Although in June Pugh said NCG co-op operations had basically returned to normal, staff turnover continued to be somewhat of an issue, as it was across the service sector. In 2021, the turnover rate among NCG general managers nearly doubled from the normal 10-15 percent per year to 30 percent, Pugh says. And stores struggled to keep frontline positions filled: many delis and hot bars shuttered for weeks at a time, and some stores had to reduce their hours.

“There’s been a lot of sporadic disruption of operations because they just didn’t have enough people,” Pugh says.

However, with their embrace of community-centered values, including democracy, fairness, equality, and social responsibility, many cooperatives have found that they can attract values-driven employees. “Those co-ops that have a really strong cooperative culture, and the feeling that the work you do is for a higher purpose — a lot of those co-ops found that actually it was a good hiring moment,” they say. Many co-ops also found ways to offer hazard pay during the pandemic, and many have made those increases permanent, they say. And the fact that there are no executives at the top of the corporate ladder making astronomically more than the workers on the ground probably helps too.

Though COVID shook up the co-op world for a while, Hannah has been surprised at the lack of consumer appetite for big changes. “It’s fascinating to see people go back to business as usual,” they say, pointing to things like the current lack of online grocery ordering and the return of salad bars. “We were prepared for change, but the customers didn’t drive it.”

Overall, Pugh feels optimistic that grocery co-ops have learned a lot over the last few years and are in a stronger place as a result.

“Those people went through this pandemic together. They went through the absolute hell of trying to serve the public in extremely uncertain time with changing rules and regulations and thoughts and ideas from week to week,” he said. “They learned to collaborate better with one another and to depend on one another better than ever before — and that’s still in place today.”

Architectural rendering of a large green commercial building with a “Detroit People’s Food Co-op” sign on the side.
A rendering of the Detroit People’s Food Co-op, which is scheduled to open in 2023.

Building Self-Determination in Detroit

Although it’s not slated to open for nearly a year, the Detroit People’s Food Co-op has already attracted almost 1,500 of its 2,000-member goal. The cooperative model is the ideal choice for the Detroit store because it positions people to work collectively for the common good, unlike a traditional for-profit establishment, Yakini says.

“Let me start by saying we are an anti-capitalist organization,” he says. “We think capitalism is a terrible economic system for human beings as well as the planet.” When the systems of capitalism and white supremacy intersect, he continues, the ownership of land and concentration of capital falls into the hands of the few “who tend to be wealthy white men.”

On top of being disempowered by an exploitive, extractive system, the people of Detroit have further been disenfranchised over the last two decades by the frequent imposition of emergency managers, whose power has superseded that of elected officials, to oversee both the city and its school system, Yakini says. “Within the context of a city that has been intentionally disempowered by the imposition of emergency managers,” he says, “it’s extremely important to have community-based projects that reignite the agency of people and get them acting in a democratic manner on their own behalf.”

Still, getting the co-op off the ground has been an arduous, nearly 13-year process that has involved feasibility studies, focus groups, a lengthy hunt for adequate land, and the securing of adequate funding.

“Anything Black people do that is related to building power and self-determination is a challenge,” Yakini says. For example, many of the tools necessary in the process are biased against people of color, he says. “Market research studies, which are a necessary prerequisite for getting funding, are often culturally insensitive, culturally biased, full of all kinds of assumptions about deficiencies in African American communities. In order to get financers to move, we have to also shift the tools they’re looking at.”

Another challenge has been educating the Black community about co-ops, which have been an overwhelmingly white phenomenon in recent decades. “You have a whole generation of folks who grew up in the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s, who have never seen a food co-op, who don’t even know what it is,” Yakini says. “When you’re trying to recruit people, if you have to start with giving people a basic education ... that makes the task much more difficult.”

The Way Forward

As the co-op movement advances, figuring its way through deep shifts in identity, it faces added challenges brought on by the economy.

Pugh worries about the effect of inflation on customer support. Of all the items in a household’s budget — housing, healthcare, gas — “the food budget represents probably the largest potential to flex, because I can exit the co-op and head to Aldi anytime,” he says. “I’m worried about that.”

Hannah is concerned because they have recently heard of a number of long-established, beloved farms ceasing their operations. “Small, local farms were hit very hard [by the pandemic], and despite all the work co-ops have done to carry their products and keep them going, they are closing at a rate we have not seen before,” they say. “Food co-ops need to start talking about what is going to happen with the local food movement.”

Despite the challenges, however, Hannah believes today’s co-ops are in a good position to persist. “Food co-ops are in an unprecedented time,” they say. “Never have we had so many ongoing decades of success. Food inequity has gotten so intense, and the food system issues have gotten so bad, that I just don’t see the passion for the movement fading.”

For these reasons and more, Yakini is optimistic about the People’s Co-op opening. He hopes it will serve as a catalyst for the strong urban agriculture movement in Detroit and that the store, located on a main thoroughfare, will encourage the development of businesses in the city’s north end that are “also rooted in justice, equity, and a holistic view of the world.”

In addition, he thinks the co-op can affect the vision leaders have for the city. “We’re hoping to impact the thinking of city appointed and elected leadership, about how we can do development in a way that centers equity and justice — and centers Black folks.”

Co-Op Grocery Stores Expand Their Mission to Equity and Food Justice [Civil Eats]