Food co-ops thrive in economic downturn

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BRATTLEBORO -- Southern Vermont and Southeastern New Hampshire are going through a food co-op renaissance.

The 71-year-old Putney Food Co-op was recently recognized with a top honor by the Cooperative Development Foundation and the Brattleboro Food Co-op this week opened its brand new, energy-efficient grocery store downtown.

In Keene and Walpole, N.H., new co-ops are slated to open in the coming year, and in Bennington, Vt., supporters are just beginning to talk about bringing a food co-op to the southwestern corner of the state.

The American economy has been struggling to emerge from the recession of 2008 and across most retail sectors sales are down, or stable at best.

So how are food co-ops finding a way to survive, and thrive, in the face of such economic uncertainty?

"In times like these, people want to feel like they have control over their money," said Putney Co-op General Manager Robyn O'Brien. "They want to see their money stay local and they know we are committed to that. They know it's important."

The Putney Co-op was honored with the Howard Bowers Award for Retailer of the Year at this year's Consumer Cooperative Management Association meeting.

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The award typically goes to some of the larger co-ops in the country, but the relatively tiny Putney Co-op walked away with the honor this year.

Along with growing sales, which have increased by about 125 percent in the last 10 years and reached $4 million, the Putney Co-op was recognized for its work out in the community.

The co-op helped start the Putney Farmers' Market, the Putney Community Garden and regularly hosts meals during the monthly community suppers.

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O'Brien said co-ops around the country are finding that as dollars are stretched thinner, consumers want to be more selective with where their money goes.

She said the co-op has put just as much resources into building its social capital as it has into figuring out how to grow sales.

"We have a triple bottom line that says we have to be economically, socially and environmentally responsible," she said. "When we have a vibrant farmers' market and garden, it adds to the health of the whole community."

O'Brien also said the new crop of co-ops planned for Walpole, Keene and Bennington is good for all of the communities involved.

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The Putney Co-op has loaned money to the Monadnock Food Co-op in Keene, which plans to open in late 2012 or early 2013, and O'Brien has had initial contact with the Walpole group, which is a few years behind the Keene project.

O'Brien, and Brattleboro Food Co-op General Manager Alex Gyori helped found the Neighboring Food Co-op Association, which is a growing group of more than 25 co-ops around New England that is pooling its resources and buying power.

The group helped start a partnership last year with area farmers and a Vermont packer to freeze local fruit and vegetables for sale in the member stores.

Gyori says that historically, in tough economic times, co-ops of all kinds tend to thrive and grow.

He said there are currently about 100 co-ops of all sizes in formation around the East Coast.

Even over the last few years, as the Brattleboro Co-op contended with limited parking and ongoing construction on its new store, sales remained stable, and Gyori is projecting 26 percent sales growth once all of the work is done at the downtown site.

"It's not surprising to anyone in the movement," Gyori said about the steady growth of food co-ops over the past few years. "When economic times are hard, people want to band together to achieve their economic goals. It's hard to say why it happens, but when people feel powerless, in a political sense, they want to find a way to exercise their power, and co-ops do that. A big company is not going to come in and buy a co-op. We are not going away. We are here for the long haul."


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