Food Co-ops Growing Around Country

Sep 17 2013

Plans in works to add 3 more in Chicago area

Chicago Tribune
By Amanda Marrazzo


Image source:
Mark Hofstetter, Wikimedia

When Kathy and Jerry Nash moved from Urbana to Lombard, they noticed something lacking in their new community.

In Urbana, shopping at a food co-op was a regular activity, but none existed close to their new home.

“We expected there to be more access (to) locally sourced, organic sustainable food,” Jerry Nash said.

The Nashes, however, learned there was an interest for a co-op in the region and are in the process of organizing The Prairie Food Co-op, which they hope to open in the western suburbs within two years.

Throughout Illinois and the rest of the nation, people like the Nashes appear to be leading a movement to open more co-ops, in which the customers often are part owners.

A demand for fresher foods with fewer pesticides and a desire to support area farmers and boost local economies are behind a renewed interest in co-ops, consumers and experts say.

Stuart Reid, executive director of the Minnesota-based Food Co-op Initiative, which provides resources and advice to groups organizing new co-ops, said there has been “tremendous” growth in the U.S. in existing co-ops as well as the emergence of new ones in recent years.

Precise statistics are hard to come by, Reid said, because there is no defined tracking system and because of varying state incorporation guidelines. Plus, there are several co-ops that operate on a limited basis with limited products.

But based on information he has been able to collect, there are about 330 fully functioning food co-ops in the country, including 68 that started up in the last eight years. The Food Co-op Initiative also is working with 130 groups starting up new food co-ops, including about 10 in Illinois. There are at least six in the state, Reid said.

Sharon Hoyer, general manager of The Dill Pickle, a co-op in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, said business has been so good, the co-op is looking for a new location to expand.

“It’s been a great whirlwind,” she said. “In the last four years membership has grown from 500 to 1,300 members. New members are signing up all the time.”

The co-op ( has established relationships with about 15 “local” farmers, meaning they are within four hours from the co-op, and some “regional” farms, those within an eight-hour drive.

Food co-ops are typically owned by members who invest, shop and sometimes work in them. But anyone is welcome to shop at a co-op.

Co-ops are for-profit businesses and may turn a small cash profit for an owner-member, Reid said, but more times than not the cash goes back into the co-op to reinvest in equipment or products “or for whatever they need.”

Co-op member owners “will have more concern with the quality of the food and the community, and not so much ‘How much money will I get back on my investment,”’ Reid said. “The fact they do get a little bit back is more of a bonus than what they are setting out for in the beginning.”

Co-ops strive to keep the money within the communities they serve and buy from local farms, bakeries and artisans. They maintain high ethics, form close relationships with their vendors and work with like-minded ethical companies, Hoyer said.

Anne Reynolds, assistant director of the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives, who teaches a class on food co-op management and the impact of co-ops on the economy, said a strong co-op can benefit a community.

“We do know certainly that food cooperatives, in particular since the 1970s, have been leaders in supporting local products getting to the consumers, both in metro areas and then in smaller towns,” Reynolds said. “Cooperatives tend to be very stable organizations in a community. Once created and successful for a few years, they really tend to last. For many communities the independent grocery stores have disappeared, and those communities that have locally owned co-op grocery stores still have them.”

Scott Brix, who lives on a small farm just outside of Marengo, is hoping to open a food co-op in McHenry County by 2015.

“It was always kind of a pie-in-the-sky discussion, then I lost my job in January (and) all of a sudden I had all this time available,” Brix said.

So he started putting his ideas into motion and over the last few months has held meetings with farmers and “other like-minded folks,” bringing together about 300 supporters. He’s also set up an official McHenry County Food Cooperative website:

The next step is to incorporate the co-op, open a bank account and raise about $15,000 to have a feasibility study drawn up. The study will provide direction as to the best place to build the co-op, how large it should be, how it should be run and who would shop there, he said.

But the co-op still needs to gather more members and raise about $500,000 to get the doors open.

“People are increasingly concerned about where their food comes from, what’s in it, where it was made and how it was made,” said Brix, who formerly worked as director of marketing for industrial enzymes in DuPont’s industrial biosciences division. “For me, personally, it’s driven by concern about the global population. … We are heading for 9 billion people. How do we sustain ourselves?”

Brix said using local farmers to provide sustainable organic foods just makes more sense.

“The idea of growing food in China or Chile and shipping it to McHenry County doesn’t seem sustainable to me, and I’m not the only one it doesn’t seem sustainable to,” he said.

Keith Johnson, market manager for the Woodstock Farmers Market and a supporter of the McHenry County Co-op, said there are about 24 farmers from the area who sell their goods at the market held on the Woodstock Square on Tuesdays and Saturdays. He believes those farmers likely would play a role in supplying the McHenry County Co-op.

“One of the things I strongly believe in is local food production,” Johnson said. “There is a lot of interest in that, statewide and nationwide. It just makes a lot of sense. A good portion of the food that is on your table travels 1,500 miles, and we have the capacity to grow a lot of that food in our own area.”

Sue Rekenthaler, who operates The Natural Farm Stand, a 33-acre farm in Richmond, said her business will sell its goods at the McHenry County Co-op. The farm’s crops include such organic produce as watermelon, peppers, garlic, onion, summer and winter squash and more than 25 varieties of tomatoes.

“We are excited about the opportunity,” Rekenthaler said.

She said Natural Farm Stand typically sells produce at its farm and at local farmers markets. But though Rekenthaler loves her loyal customers, the markets are exhausting, she said.

The co-op will be easier and have a broader customer base.

“We are not getting any younger,” she said. “Markets are hard work … taking down, setting up. … It’s almost cured me of wanting to run off to the circus.”

Jerry Nash said that more people today want to know where their food is coming from, how it is being grown and whether or not animals are being treated humanely.

People also want more of a hand in choosing what is being offered in their local grocery store, and they want a say in running the operation, he said.

Nash noted that there have been two great waves of co-ops being formed in the U.S. in the past 80 years. The first was during the Great Depression in response to a need for good food at fair prices. Many of the food co-ops in existence today were founded during the second wave during the late 1960s through the early 1980s in response to concerns over harmful chemicals being used in farming and manufacturing, Nash said.

“The third wave of cooperatives is reminiscent of their first and second wave predecessors in that both the economy and concern over healthy local food plays a role,” he said. “In each case, cooperative development is responding to community desires, such as a fundamental need for a grocery store with fresh, healthy food or to make locally produced foods accessible and build a sustainable local economy.”

The Nashes are selling shares at $100 a piece and hope to raise enough money to conduct a feasibility study, which will help them determine where to locate the co-op. They are deciding between Lombard, Elmhurst, Glen Ellyn and Villa Park. Their website is

“Co-ops have a very, very powerful impact on their local economies,” Nash said. “People on both (political) sides agree co-ops are a way to go for healthier foods that support local economy.”

He cited statistics from the National Cooperative Grocers Association that show the local economic impact of co-ops often exceeds that of conventional grocers at a per-capita rate.

Reynolds said research conducted at the University of Wisconsin in 2006-2007 determined that food cooperatives were responsible for more than 15,000 jobs, almost 500,000 memberships and $2.5 million in wages and benefits.

Kathy Nash said shopping in a co-op is like a social outing.

“It is such a wonderful experience to shop at a co-op,” she said. “In many instances they become community gathering places that offer cooking classes, (such as ) cooking on a budget, (cooking) healthy.”

Co-ops also are known for clearly labeling the products they sell, indicating where they were grown and whether they were grown and certified organic or grown with organiclike practices.

“That information is very difficult to get from a regular grocery store,” Kathy Nash said.

Mary Krystinak, who lives in West Chicago and owns a business called Mary’s Wholesome Living, plans to teach classes at The Prairie Food Co-op on growing produce and on cooking and canning. She also plans to financially support the co-op by being a member-owner and suppling the store with her canned jams and pickles.

“Many people nowadays are so disconnected from their food, not even aware of how or where it is grown, whether it is genetically modified, polluted with chemicals and even in how to prepare it,” said Krystinak, who added she is encouraged that The Prairie Food Co-op hopes to make food affordable to those most in need.

George Hahne, of Cary, is establishing Shared Harvest Co-op in Elgin. Hahne sits on the board of directors of the venture, which is selling shares and trying to open by next summer.

They hope to find a storefront in downtown Elgin, which Hahne said ideally would be about 5,000 square feet. The website is

“(The mission) was started by a group of neighbors interested in easy access to good, fresh, healthy food that is affordable … primarily organic and locally produced,” Hahne said.

Co-ops, which also sell safe and natural nonfood items such as cleaning supplies, soaps and cosmetics, allow the consumer to be closer to the producer, eliminating excess food processing and shipping, he said.

“We can eat more fresh foods from the field, and it’s on the tables in a shorter time,” Hahne said. “There are co-ops springing up all over the country now. It’s people who want to eat better and have a good alternative to what you have in grocery stores.”

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