The rise of the modern food cooperative


By Jonathan Kauffman, San Francisco Chronicle

March 16, 2017


The first vote was the easy one.


At last month’s official meeting of the Cultivate Community Food Co-op Steering Committee in Benicia, 16 of its members were learning how to act like a cooperative.


Up until just a few months before, the co-op had existed only in the heads of a few organizers. It has no funding, no location and no paying members. In fact, at the start of the meeting it had a different working name: the Benicia-Vallejo Food Co-op. Piece by piece, though, the co-op was coming together. And now it was time for the first show of hands.


Wolfgang Hagar, a former Rainbow Grocery worker who moved to Vallejo last year, stood at an easel pad in instigator Paula Schnese’s family room, laying out a process for the steering committee to make decisions. “We’re building a structure on how to vote on proposals,” Hagar told them. “We want to bake this into the structure of the organization.”


The committee members, all with name tags taped to their shirts, gathered in clusters of chairs or leaned against the kitchen island. Glasses of red wine had dispelled the amiably respectful tone of the first 90 minutes, when representatives from each of the subcommittees reported on their progress.


Hagar walked the group through how to propose an action, debate it, suggest amendments and then vote, requiring only a simple majority to carry the day. Their first vote: Whether to adopt the process. Sixteen raised hands agreed. For all its insignificance, the group greeted the vote as an auspicious, unanimous start.


It has never been more complicated or more expensive for groups like Cultivate Community to start a food co-op, and yet co-op grocers are growing at the fastest pace since the 1970s, in rural towns and dense urban neighborhoods alike.


The National Co-op Grocers, an association of food cooperatives that buy collectively, has seen its membership rise from 106 to 151 since 2006, and natural foods co-ops that have been in business for 40 years have added third, fourth, even sixth locations — small numbers compared to 38,000 large supermarkets in the United States, according to a recent count by Progressive Grocer magazine, but a significant growth nonetheless. An 11-year-old national organization called the Food Co-op Initiative has come up with a startup guide for groups to follow.


For Cultivate Community, help has also come in the form of Hagar, a real estate agent in Vallejo who worked at Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco for 15 years. His task, that night, was to help the steering committee navigate the inclusive and often tedious territory of collective decision-making.


Perils to the spirit of unanimity emerged the moment Hagar brought up the topic of abstentions. One member challenged him: