Anyone who has been in a grocery store lately has been hit with “sticker shock”, “price gouging”, over pricing, and/or other indicators of significant price increases for basic food items. Canada’s Competition Bureau has also taken notice of the situation and issued a recent report on the lack of competition in the grocery business. The Bureau determined that five major companies controlled more than seventy-five percent of groceries sold in Canada. It also found this lack of real competition contributed to high prices for basic food items and some action against this food oligopoly was desirable.
One of the Bureau’s solutions is to allow new international players onto the scene. But there is a better alternative not mentioned by the Bureau. This is the idea and implementation of a food cooperative. In a cooperative, the customers become the retailers – they own and operate the store. A food cooperative can be as simple as a few families getting together and buying in bulk. It can also become a full-scale wholesale-retail operation. But, in all cases, the cooperative is a community entity created with the goal of delivering the most appropriate food items to the members in the most effective manner possible.
The first benefit that members of a cooperative realize is monetary. The cooperative gives its members control over costs and returns benefits directly to the members. But that is not the only benefit. A cooperative encourages positive relationships within the community. It also encourages education on financial and social issues that affect the entire community. It gives strong support to local farmers and food producers. And it can create meaningful ethical evaluations related to food industries. Health effects of certain foods can be determined, and action taken at the community level – something that gives better results than individual evaluations. Additional benefits for the community will come as the cooperative principle becomes more widely practiced.
The Competition Bureau also mentioned the possibility of a new “code of conduct” as a mechanism for improving customer engagement with grocery stores. By its very definition and existence, a food cooperative must have and follow a code of conduct that comes from the public, not an advertising agency that generates nice words for public relations. A code-of-conduct developed by a cooperative will also address environmental issues and clearly define actions to achieve a sustainable operation.
Starting and maintaining a food cooperative requires a few good people who are community oriented and prepared to take action. The first acts may be simple bulk buying but, as experience grows, and benefits accrue, the cooperative can become a significant and positive alternative to our current food suppliers. And some alternative is needed if our community is to be well fed within livable financial limits.