All Together Now

PrintOctober is National Cooperative Month. Greensboro celebrated co-ops this month with the opening of the Renaissance Community Co-Op on Phillips Avenue. Along with Deep Roots Market, Greensboro now has two retail grocery cooperatives, making us the only such city in North Carolina, possibly in the entire southeastern United States! This column is a tale of two co-ops. First, some background information.

“Cooperatives” are business organizations owned and operated by a group of individuals for their mutual benefit. There are about 29,284 co-ops in the US, excluding housing co-ops. They generate nearly $700 billion a year in revenue, making them a significant part of the national economy. Some are national in scope. Examples of national co-ops with a presence in Greensboro are:

the outdoor recreation services company REI, which is a consumers’cooperative;
Ace Hardware is a retailers’cooperative;
food companies Land O’Lakes and Ocean Spray, whose products are available locally, are both agricultural cooperatives;
The Associated Press is a news services cooperative.

A business that people are surprised to learn is a cooperative is the Green Bay Packers. That’s right, the NFL franchise has been community owned since 1923. A recent count showed 360,760 shareholders.

Locally we have several Credit Unions – they are co-ops to which thousands of locals belong. In addition there is College Hill Child Care, a parent-owned cooperative. In Milner Dorm at Guilford College you’ll find the Greenleaf Coffee Co-Op — a member operated coffeehouse. And the aforementioned Deep Roots Market and Renaissance Community Co-Op.

So, on to the tale of two co-ops. Deep Roots Market cooperative celebrated its 40th anniversary earlier this year, while the Renaissance Community Co-Op just opened its doors this month. They are both local community-owned businesses. Local ownership means their resources and revenues circulate more fully in the local community than would be the case with a chain store whose offices and owners are scattered elsewhere. Also, as locally owned businesses the 2 co-ops’ decision-making is directed by the needs of the local communities they serve, not by the needs of a parent out-of-state organization. Meeting the needs of the local community overrides any for-profit corporation requirement to maximize shareholder financial return. Additionally, owners of each co-op can play a larger role in serving their community by getting elected to the Board of Directors that oversees their co-op’s activities.

While the two co-ops share a commitment to “cooperative principles and values”, their histories differ substantially. Deep Roots, which opened its doors in 1976, was founded by consumers from throughout Guilford County who were looking for more wholesome food choices than were readily available in grocery stores at that time. Retired UNCG History Professor Kenneth Caneva put it this way: “My wife Jane and I joined Deep Roots in 1979 — my ownership no. is 37. Initially, Deep Roots was essentially the only place in town to get many of the foods sold there, especially organic, plus we embraced the general sentiments of the Deep Roots community. Since then it’s continued to be the first place I shop for whatever I can’t get at the Farmers’ Market — the selection and quality are good, and I support the coop movement in general.”

I asked two current Deep Roots employees what attracted them to working at a co-op. Chantae McDaniel said “it’s important to me that most of our customers choose to shop here because they like supporting a locally owned store.” She also likes Deep Roots’ community involvement, such as making their Community Room available for local groups to use for free. Janis Cross, a former elementary school teacher, has managed the Wellness Department at Deep Roots since 1994. She says “Cooperative principals are in line with my personal morals. Being a leader of sustainability in the community, offering and supporting foods that are healthy not just for the consumer, but for the entire Earth are very important to me.”

The number of people owning a share of Deep Roots has grown to about 4000. The Renaissance Community Co-Op, or RCC, though it just opened its doors is already up to almost 1000 owners. Whereas Deep Roots draws its patrons from throughout Guilford County, the RCC is the result of a more concentrated, concerted effort to bring a grocery store to a specific neighborhood that’s been 18 years without one. Casey Thomas says “I joined the RCC because the idea of building an engine for community-owned wealth in a community that looks in a lot of ways just like my Nana’s appealed to me deeply. In too many Black and low-income communities, the market decides that the people who live there are not worth the things we need to live well – so we wind up with higher rates of heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke. By opening this store, we are taking back life itself from a system that says people who live in Northeast Greensboro don’t deserve it. We have built a store that will be profitable, but that focuses on providing access to food and good jobs over making money for the sake of making money, regardless of who it hurts or leaves out of the economy. That is why I am proud to be a part of the RCC.” Thomas works for The Main Street Alliance, and has a Master’s in Public Health from UNCG.

Kate Schumacher recently left working in the Produce Department at Deep Roots to become Produce Manager at the RCC. She particularly likes co-ops’ “commitment to local food producers. I grew up in a small town and saw Wal-Mart come in and drive all the small growers out of business. At Co-ops I’m not only allowed to buy product from small local producers, but I’m encouraged to do so.”

Cooperatives provide an economically viable, community oriented alternative to the conventional bottom-line driven business model. Patronizing them is voting with your dollars for a vibrant local economy. As the Beatles sang, “All Together Now!”

For a description of the “cooperative principles and values”, check out http://sgeproject.org/about/values-principles-of-cooperation/.

Landau is a former General Manager of Deep Roots Market and currently serves on their Board of Directors.