The National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA) released a new study, “Healthy Foods Healthy Communities: Measuring the Social and Economic Impact of Food Co-ops,” that compares how food co-ops and conventional grocery stores perform in five categories: Supporting Local Food Systems, Creating Quality Jobs, Local Economic Impact, Environmental Stewardship and Promoting Healthy & Sustainable Foods. Download the complete report here.
As described on the NCGA consumer website, “unlike their conventional counterparts, co-ops are owned and governed by member-shoppers and rooted in principles like community, voluntary and open membership, economic participation and cooperation. Because of these principles and practices, food co-ops inherently serve and benefit the communities where they are located.” (You don’t have to be a member to shop at a co-op, one of several myths that the NCGA works to dispel.)
The typical food co-op works with more than 150 individual local farmers and food producers, compared with 65 for the conventional grocery store. Co-ops source 45% of their meats from local farmers, against 5% for conventional stores. Thirty-five percent (35%) versus 3% of deli foods are sourced locally, 31% versus 9% of dairy and 20% versus 14% of produce. Also, 82% of produce sales at food co-ops are organic, compared with 12% for conventional grocery stores.
Local foods and locally produced food products are better for our health. Why? Mainly because they are produced on a smaller scale, for members of the local community. Nothing extraordinary has to be done to harvest, produce or transport the food. No synthetic substances or extraneous processes are used to cut corners in production. At least not usually. Besides, local producers have to answer to consumers who are also their neighbors, so it’s in their interests to employ best practices to make the best food they can.
Local sourcing is also good for the local economy, by creating what economists refer to as a multiplier effect. It begins with the purchase of food from local farmers by co-ops. “Farmers in turn use some of the money they receive from cooperatives to buy supplies from local sources, hire local technicians to repair their equipment, and purchase goods and services from local retailers,” the report on the study explains. For every $1,000 a shopper spends at his or her local food co-op, $604 go back into the local economy — $239 more than if he or she had spent the same amount at a conventional grocery store.
In the area of environmental stewardship, food co-ops also come out ahead of conventional grocery stores. While acknowledging the fact that groceries of any type — co-op and conventional alike — generate a lot of waste, the study found that co-ops recycle 81% of their plastic waste as compared with 29% by conventional grocers and 74% of food waste as compared with 36%. The rate of cardboard recycling is comparable between co-ops and conventional stores. (Data on recycling rates for supermarkets nationwide are not available, so the study references numbers from a California government report that reviewed 30 grocery stores in the state.)
Unfortunately, there are only 120 retail food co-ops, operating 160 storefronts, across the country. The closest one to my house is an hour away, and out of the way, which makes it impractical for me to shop there on a regular basis. But maybe you can find one near you.
Photo Credit: Rusty Clark
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