There is still much to be done before members of the Grand Rapids Food Co-Op Initiative
are able to establish a physical grocery store in downtown Grand Rapids, but with the launch of its first big membership drive planned for June, organizers of the registered nonprofit group are optimistic about their plan’s viability in the coming years.
“(Feasibility study results) were encouraging, and it does look like a co-op in Grand Rapids would be financially viable,” says Linda Jones, the Grand Rapids resident who spearheaded the initiative alongside the Creston Neighborhood Association’s Deborah Eid.
Jones and Eid first began conversations about bringing a co-op grocery into the downtown core about one year ago, shortly after she moved back to Grand Rapids so her husband, Jim Jones
, could pursue more work in the area’s co-operative housing.
“I said I wanted to start a food co-op in Grand Rapids because I was concerned about not having a decent grocery store close by,” Jones says. “Deborah Eid said, ‘I’d like to work on that too.’”
Now around 20 members strong, Jones was able to garner more interest through Facebook, and members have leaned on advice from existing food co-ops in Kalamazoo and Traverse City, as well as experiences at national food co-op conventions, to build their organization in the sociocracy business model. Essentially, the model employs group consent in order to use analysis and compromise to resolve differing opinions in an effort to avoid a seizure of too much power by one party.
“With consent, if I can work within the given parameters I will, and if I can’t, I’ll tell you why I can’t and then we all work together to craft a better proposal,” she says. “By the end of the process, you’ve got the best you can come up with at that time…Every opinion is included, every voice is heard, and every voice matters — which is important with a co-op effort, since it is so collaborative.”
The big difference between a regular grocery store and a co-op grocery store lies in ownership — though the co-op grocery would be open for everyone to shop at, the co-operative model dictates that the store is run by member-owners, whose share amount represents their stake in the business that gives them a vote.
Jones says the Grand Rapids Food Co-Op Initative’s recent online survey garnered about 100 responses, with about 50 percent indicating interest in a buy-in amount that was $350 or less, and a surprising 35 percent willing to pay $500 or more for a member share, which would additionally provide discounts on items in the store once established.
The goal is to move into a commercial building around 10,000 square feet in size and the group is considering options in any under serviced neighborhood within a few miles of Grand Rapids’ downtown core. The store would be big enough to have a wide range of traditional grocery items as well as a deli, hot bar, salad bar, and gathering place with the possibility of a demonstration kitchen for cooking classes.
“We want this store to be a place that brings people together to share the bounty of our vibrant local food producers,” Jones says.
Right now, the co-op initiative will focus on getting the word out about the June membership drive — Jones says the organization needs about 1,000 committed members in order to move forward with signing leases on a physical space — and are also looking for additional funding through local foundations interested in food equality alongside USDA funds for some seed grant money.
Until then, the group is encouraging questions and feedback via its Facebook page here and hope to demonstrate the value a co-operative grocery can have for downtown neighborhoods where access to fresh produce and grocery selection is currently lacking.
“To have a place residents they feel they can have a say in will help empower them in many other ways, too,” she says. “Maybe there’s other changes in their neighborhood they can make after they see they can have a say in this effort.”
For more information or to stay updated on the June membership drive, visit the Grand Rapids Food Co-Op Initiative here on Facebook
Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of Linda Jones/ GR Food Co-Op Initiative