From working with local business advisers to create a solid business plan to consulting with food cooperatives throughout the Northwest and beyond, Yakima Food Co-op’s board has brought the co-op project as far as a small team can. It’s now up to the community to demonstrate whether we are ready to take ownership of the business.
The co-op’s leaders are asking Yakima residents — individuals and civic leaders alike — to take a leap and embrace an unfamiliar, but proven way of doing business. It is not impossible. Communities do it all the time, but it takes time and passion.
A consumer-owned co-op works for the good of its owners, or members. For the most part, that means it’s owned by the people who shop there. A co-op also works for the good of the local community. When one is doing well, the benefits are shared among owners and spill into the general public in the form of mission-based programs and projects.
Collective ownership makes financing and operating a cooperative very different from traditional ways of doing business. It is essentially an effort in grass-roots organizing. The equity used to open the business doesn’t come from taxpayer dollars, a private bank or an angel investor. It comes from me and you, and from our neighbors, and from the institutions that have the foresight to invest in projects that foster the kind of city they want to do business in.
From how it is funded and operated, to how the profits are divided, the cooperative model offers something to everyone involved. It doesn’t fit snugly into the usual paradigm of greedy for-profits vs. do-gooder nonprofits and charities.
It is a model that can play a role in conversations like those I hear regularly around Yakima — conversations about healthy families, about the richness of our agricultural community, civic pride, tourism, and about small businesses and individuals struggling with economic challenges. The model may sound idealistic, but that does not mean it cannot be viable. From America’s first successful co-op, which was formed by Ben Franklin, to the Northwest’s own R.E.I., which is the nation’s largest consumer-owned co-op, the model is tried and true.
People often ask why I think Yakima is a good place for a food co-op. Here are just a few answers:
• A food co-op allows a city to offer a year-round showcase of the region’s finest products.
• It bolsters a region’s economy by keeping more of each dollar spent in the hands of local workers and owners.
• It ensures that workers are paid a fair wage for the goods consumed.
• It supports local farmers — often the little guys that you’re never going to see represented at nationally based grocery stores.
Once started, a co-op is largely self-sustaining, with membership acting as a built-in customer base. It promotes practices that are healthy for our planet and for our people. It invests in outreach and education that enrich the lives of the community. It offers shoppers a way to spend our money in a way that reflects, rather than betrays, our values. When measuring wealth, it takes more into account than just dollars.
It offers a space where neighbors and strangers meet and exchange challenges and successes, ideas and smiles. How could a business like that not be a good thing to have here in our growing, changing Valley?
The word-of-the-month in August was cooperate. As I look around Yakima’s cultural landscape, I can’t see a better way to live in the cooperative spirit than by participating in the co-op development project. If the Yakima Food Cooperative is to become a reality, now is the time for us to muster our passion and work together to make this happen. A truly win-win-win situation can be difficult to come by in the world of business.
But the option really is here, right in front of us. I’ve made my investment.
If you’re ready to learn more about how and why to make yours, visit the co-op’s website (www.yakimafood.coop), “like” the page on Facebook, or pick up the membership agreement at local businesses. Membership is open to everyone. Payment options are available to ease financial impact.
• Maria Jett is the co-founder of Appleseed Media and a Yakima Food Co-op owner and volunteer.