Maine’s New Wave of Food Co-ops One Year Later

One year ago in Rootstock, we highlighted the growing wave of food co-ops in Maine. A lot can happen in a single circuit around the sun, of course, so what better time than National Cooperative Month to check in and see how our fellow co-ops have grown and changed?

pfc-lgoThe Portland Food Co-op (PFC) had its grand opening in December of 2014. This marked the culmination of years of effort, progressing from a volunteer-run buying club to official incorporation as a cooperative business. Open twelve hours a day, seven days a week, PFC is a readily accessible grocery store that seeks to be a go-to source of natural, local and organic products for its home city. Though it is owned by members, PFC is open to anyone who wants to support this vision with their shopping list. In an email exchange, Mary Alice Scott, PFC’s Education and Outreach Coordinator reports that: “…so far it’s been great! We’ve been ahead of projections every week, and have grown from about 2100 Member-Owners at the time of opening to over 3300 Member-Owners now. We…already have partnerships with over 250 local farmers and producers (and adding more all the time!) People were so excited for us to open– there were about 15 people waiting for us to open the doors on our first day.”

Marsh-River-Coop-Logo-12pThe Marsh River Cooperative celebrated its first anniversary on the 8th of August, marking a full year of bringing local food, crafts, livestock feed and community spirit to the citizens of Brooks. The Co-op has also hosted events, including a roundtable discussion forum for livestock drovers and teamsters, craft sales and workshops, and art gallery openings. Co-op member and volunteer Ed Hamel comments, “The Marsh River Co-op’s focus is a 10 mile radius from the store. I see this as a large benefit for the community by reducing travel miles for healthy food, by circulating the money spent at the store back into the local area, and over time making the local communities more secure in food production. My hope is for the co-op to become a center where local people have many opportunities for food, education, enterprise, entertainment, and all this with local control.”

Round-Logo-image-140px-TransBarrels Community Market in Waterville incorporated as a cooperative food marketplace in July of 2013. As a market, Barrels aims to provide affordable, quality natural foods, locally sourced and seasonal when possible. It also highlights community-supportive efforts, such as offering a welcoming space for volunteer-based and educational programs. Barrels closed temporarily for the month of August to refocus its vision as a store, and will reopen in September.

gardnerThe Gardiner Food Co-op, which grew from the efforts of the Kennebec Local Food Initiative buying club, opened to the public in May 2015. It is one of the smaller co-ops in Maine, but membership has increased in the few months it’s been in business, and staff and members are optimistic about the months ahead. Though the small size of the Co-op has impeded its ability to purchase comparable volumes of goods as other stores (therefore affecting pricing and variety), community feedback continues to affirm the long-term viability of the Co-op vision. With the help of seasonal interns and a $25,000 grant from the State Farm Neighborhood Assist Program, education and outreach efforts are increasingly in development. A federally funded Community Development Block Grant and lots of volunteer energy will support continued growth. The Co-op is open seven days a week, offering goods from almost 40 local vendors along with general grocery products, and freshly made food and drink in their cafe.

market streetMoving north, we have the Market Street Co-op in Fort Kent. Springing from the truly grassroots efforts of the Black Bear Buying Club, the Co-op incorporated at the beginning of 2014 and opened its doors just months later with about a hundred member-owners. The Co-op, which shares space in a renovated historic building with a fiber studio and barber shop, maintains the Horseshoe Cafe and aims to grow “a stable market for local farmers and artisans from Maine.” This member-owned and operated store has a truly historic setting, upholding the tradition of distributing food from a building that provisioned folks during the St. John Valley’s log driving heyday.

Coming back to the coast, The Island Employee Cooperative (IEC) in Stonington is an interesting alternative model. Rather than a single retail outlet, it synthesizes four previously separate stores. When the owner of those businesses wished to sell and failed to find a suitable buyer, employees stepped forward to cooperatively own and run the stores. It was a big leap of faith for the worker-owners, but thus far their innovation seems to be paying off– with a staff of 60, IEC has become the largest worker co-op in the state of Maine. Transitioning from a conventional retail setting to a cooperative is an unconventional approach, but some predict that it could be a sensible strategy for Maine businesses. Our state maintains one of the oldest populations in the nation, and the future of many longtime businesses is uncertain. As IEC produce manager Jo Larrabee explained, “Turning these businesses into a worker cooperative means these jobs and a chance to own a piece of these businesses will be here for the next generation, long after I’m gone.” Rob Brown, director of the Business Ownership Solutions program of the Cooperative Development Institute, and one the cooperative development specialists who executed the IEC conversion, agrees, saying: “Conversion to cooperative ownership is a practical, successful model for Maine’s small business owners who want to retire. It keeps the jobs and profits locally rooted and gives the workers an opportunity to build wealth through ownership.”

It’s precisely that sort of ownership that makes cooperative businesses a strong artery of the Maine economy. Though co-ops often face similar challenges to other retail outlets, they have the resilience of an invested clientele whose vision and values are reflected in what fills the shelves. With the dedicated effort of member-owners, cooperatives may help sustain our state for generations to come. For more information on the co-ops mentioned in this article, visit their websites and social media pages. Or better yet, swing by in person to see cooperative enterprise in action. We at the Belfast Co-op wish them well in the years ahead.

Hannah Kreitzer is a worker-owner at the Belfast Co-op.

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