Credit unions—like Dupaco—are financial co-operatives. What's a cooperative? A cooperative is an independent group of people united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise. The co-operative model of enterprise can be applied to any business activity, including financial services and food. Credit unions, like Dupaco, actively collaborate with cooperatives from all sectors as a way to foster growth and improve the communities in which we work and live.
This 2-part post will explore the inner workings of two food co-ops in Iowa: one a well-oiled machine, and the other just getting off the ground.
For Dubuque, a city steeped in history and surrounded by rolling farm hills, a food cooperative specializing in organic foods seems like a natural fit.
The Dubuque Food Co-op, expected to open next year in Dubuque's Historic Millwork District, is already receiving a warm welcome in its community.
Perhaps the buzz is understandable. There's nothing quite like it within 90 miles.
With more than 750 member-owners so far, the food co-op is about halfway toward its full membership goal, according to Tom Goodman, vice president of the co-op's board of directors.
Members pay a one-time $100 fee, or member share, which is fully refundable if they decide to leave. Among other benefits, members receive one owner's share of the full-service grocer, discounts on the products located inside of the 6,000 square-foot store and a say in the direction of the co-op.
"Every member is an owner. As a result, you can make suggestions, you can run for the board of directors, you can volunteer or invest more money. There are a number of things you can do to make sure it succeeds," Goodman says. "There's a common purpose. Everyone involved wants a better source for food."
Goodman, a longtime organic food consumer, jumped at the chance to get involved with the co-op initiative 2 ½ years ago.
"It's been a lot of work, but there's a light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "And when the store gets opened, it will be a great thing for Dubuque."
Reaction to the co-op concept has been mixed.
Local residents who are members of food co-ops elsewhere are eager to shop at a cooperative closer to home. Others are excited about the opportunity to give food co-ops a try. But there also are a number of people who don’t fully understand the co-op concept, Goodman said.
The average co-op member has evolved over the years, according to David Lester, general manager of Oneota Community Food Cooperative http://www.oneotacoop.com/ in Decorah, Iowa.
"I think your co-op member back in the early '70s was very passionate about the types of products you carried and food politics. That's still true today, but our range of your typical co-op member is so different now," he said.
"It's anyone. They want to support businesses that are doing great things for the community and buy products from companies that treat their environment and workers well. It's a more sustainable way to feed your family and support your community at the same time."
Food co-ops like Oneota are doing their part to help the Dubuque Food Co-op succeed. They're answering questions and offering feedback about how they would have done things differently with their business.
Theresa Carbrey, in charge of education and member services at New Pioneer Food Co-op in Iowa City and Coralville, Iowa, says the opening of the Dubuque Food Co-op is a win-win for everyone.
"All of us co-ops collectively strengthen the network of co-ops as an economic alternative to profit-driven corporations," she said. "The purpose of a cooperative primarily is to service members' needs."