If history has taught us anything, it’s that we need to reevaluate our long-held beliefs if we’re going to make progress. Several of those beliefs have to do with the way we grow, cultivate, manufacture, process and distribute foods and beverages.

Our distribution models are particularly ripe for change and disruption. LEAN manufacturing is helping food companies trim waste from their processes. But distribution is changing at the consumer level as well, thanks to a resurgence of interest in food co-ops.

So what are food co-ops, and why are they relevant now? Is there a chance they’ll change the way we purchase our food?

What’s a Food Co-Op?

It’s expensive to shop at most mainstream food stores. Co-ops offer an alternative to the familiar “grocery store experience” that many of us currently depend on.

Food co-operatives, or “co-ops,” are member-owned stores that sell groceries, foods and household staples. These co-ops are the property of the people who shop there, unlike the profit-driven, corporate-owned grocery stores.

Broadly speaking, food co-operatives take the following form and offer the following benefits.

  • Co-ops are member-owned and not corporate-owned.
  • Members receive discounts on the store’s offerings, while non-members pay full price.
  • Members of the co-op vote on the organization’s general direction and major decisions.
  • Food co-ops open up access to locally and/or organically grown foods in areas that might only have had access to mainstream grocery stores, predominantly processed foods and low-quality or poor selections of produce.

The cost of membership can vary from organization to organization, but one example of a membership due would be a one-time fee of $100 to join. After that, you’re a member-owner and a literal shareholder for life, or for however long you live in the area.

What Are the Advantages of Food Cooperatives?

In the words of the National Cooperative Business Association, “What sets a cooperative apart from other types of corporations is who the owners of the company are. While other types of corporations are owned by shareholders or stockholders, co-ops are owned by its members or the people who use the services of the cooperative. Some cooperatives are employee-owned.”

The Neighboring Food Co-op Association says that a co-op is “a[n] autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise.”

Another organization, the International Cooperative Association, identifies the following general hallmarks and benefits of trade co-ops:

  • Anybody may join a co-op; they can’t exclude anyone, although some co-ops only accept members from the same state. Even then, anybody may shop there.
  • Member-owners become shareholders when they join, and may sometimes obtain or purchase additional shares, sometimes up to a certain limit. Many co-ops, including some food co-ops, offer monthly dividends to shareholders, determined by the success of the organization. State and federal laws have caps on dividend amounts.
  • Co-ops in the United States are pass-through organizations and don’t pay ordinary business taxes. Members must pay taxes on any dividends they receive, however.
  • Every member-owner may vote in the organization’s operations, no matter how many shares they own. Any member can run to become a member of the board.

Apart from the benefits for members, what are the benefits for shoppers – and for communities?

As mentioned, food co-ops provide access to healthful, locally sourced foods. Their selections may vary with time and the seasons, but shoppers can count on high-quality ingredients from local vendors. Larger supermarkets offer a mind-numbing amount of choice, but they give up the brisk product turnover that keeps the food at co-ops crisp and appealing, no preservatives required.

By that same token, co-ops play an important role in small-scale agriculture and in keeping local farms thriving and connected to our communities. Even in cases where larger grocery chains say they’re buying local, they might be talking about products trucked in from a given sales territory, and not necessarily from the town or county you call home.

Local produce tends to be both pesticide-and preservative-free. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, small-scale and organic farming promotes biodiversity, too, in a way that industrial farming demonstrably does not.

Co-Ops and the Future of Everything

Choosing food from a local co-op could also substantially reduce the agriculture industry’s greenhouse gas emissions. This comes at a critical moment marked by calls from all over the globe for agriculture to curb its carbon footprint. The sprawling apparatus that is industrial animal agriculture, for example, has a footprint that exceeds that of every transportation technology combined.

From an economic perspective, food and other types of co-ops help keep money in local economies, keeps local farmland productive so it’s not bought and developed by somebody else, creates a healthy and always-changing assortment of high-quality ingredients for local restaurants and ultimately empowers the consumer.

Customers want and deserve to know where their food comes from, and that it’s not placing an unfair burden on the rest of our supply chains and our planet. Employees also want and deserve a say in how their companies operate.

Co-ops are global-minded but community-focused, with few apparent downsides for shoppers, employees or the environment. Based on the merits, they might represent the future of how we buy food.