Transforming a Food Desert through Cooperation

From May 2013

Over 20 years ago, the founders of the Daily Groceries Co-op in Athens, Georgia, wanted a place where they could simply buy fresh fruit. There were no grocery stores downtown where the Daily Groceries Co-op is located and the availability of any kind of healthy foods was limited. People didn’t call it a “food desert” back then, but that’s exactly what it was.

Like a lot of established food co-ops, it got its start in a small 1,000-square-foot storefront with reduced rent and ran on volunteer labor. It operated that way for almost two decades until the board realized that the co-op needed to change its liberal discount policy or else face dire consequences. “People really liked the vibe of the store,” said Delene Porter, the co-op’s current board president, “but there had been no energy for governance. Members were surprised the store wasn’t sustainable.” Soon the co-op would be on the fast track to sustainability with a high learning curve. The co-op worked hard to educate members about changing from a discount-based benefit system to a patronage rebate system in 2012.

Fortunately, other forces in Athens have coalesced for business synergies that support the co-op’s changes. Concurrent with the financial wake-up call at the co-op, the town itself was also experiencing the signs of a renaissance. Athens has long been famous for its music scene (think REM) but it has been a town with a high poverty rate and with few well-paying jobs. Now, the community has been re-energized by community growth as it focuses on its assets: the University of Georgia, farmers markets and art and cultural events.

In addition to the discount change, the co-op discontinued their working member program in the store and instituted member equity (a $100 one-time stock purchase) instead of an annual joiner’s fee. They’ve also hired a new general manager to address operational issues and the board is enrolled in the CBLD program. Whew!

“We’ve been moving relatively quickly now,” said Porter. “The conversation has changed from ‘what’s in it for me’ to what’s in it for the community. How can we expand to meet the community’s needs?” Porter said that in many ways the board has had to adopt a startup mentality, and the energy they are putting into the co-op is also radiating out to the community. “All of our members want to have that conversation. We didn’t think Daily was ready for that. Now it is.”

Those dreams of addressing the food desert are no longer languishing. “We realized we needed to build an infrastructure and knowledge base first. It was a really good move to invest in our board work,” Porter said.

www.dailygroceries.org

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