January Potluck & Next Steps for the Food Co-op Idea

Thanks to everyone who came out to the January potluck Thursday night – somewhere between 40 and 50 people, including a whole gaggle of absurdly cute toddlers.

What was there to eat? A lot of delicious food:

  • Butternut squash & chickpeas with tahini dressing
  • Bean enchiladas
  • Roast venison
  • Bean salad
  • Pasta with tomatoes, peppers & white beans (maybe sausage too?)
  • Clove lentils & rice
  • Pesto, potato, onion whole wheat pizza
  • Bounty rice (chicken, cabbage, rice & cheese)
  • Chili with pinto beans, black beans and TVP
  • Rice & beans
  • Black bean soup
  • Apple pie
  • Chocolate beet brownies
  • Regular brownies
  • Banana almond bread
  • Homemade whole wheat oatmeal bread
  • Kalamata olive bread
  • Cranberry orange scones

For the featured idea, Daryl Sinn gave an overview of his experiences with the Our Store Food Co-op that operated in State College between about 1975 and 1980, in the basement of what’s now Kranich’s Jewelers.

He said during the last full year, the co-op had more than 200 members and $250,000 in business. There was also a cooperative bakery – organizers sold shares to family and friends and members put in labor and were paid in bread. The bakery also sold bread to Weis Markets and the food co-op, and a natural food store called New Moon Cafe. Later, one of the members kept the bakery going for awhile in Bellefonte.

Daryl said he thought the Our Store Food Co-op folded for two main reasons: a difficult credit market (interest rates on loans in the late 1970s were 18-20%) and a split among the membership over whether the store should sell only to members, or also serve non-members using a variable pricing system.

Daryl and other potluck participants emphasized everal key features of co-ops:

  • Unlike informal buying clubs – whose members loosely coordinate bulk orders from distributers like Frankferd Farms – cooperatives are legal entities: formally incorporated; with bylaws and annual meetings;  decisions made by a board elected by the members; and specific legally-required accounting standards.
  • Successful co-ops that thrive over time generally have members willing to make long-term commitments to the project; usually sell to any customers, even if members get a price discount because of their work for the co-op; and usually use market studies, formal business plans, and clear corporate structures to support their deeper social goals of building community spaces and supporting local farmers.

People seemed to have one key question about the potential for starting up a new food co-op:

Given that State College residents have access to several farmers markets, CSAs, community gardens, and high-quality produce at Wegman’s, plus strong bulk food offerings at Nature’s Pantry, the Granary and Wegman’s – is there enough of an untapped market that a co-op would find a customer base?

To work toward answering that question, Sarah Potter offered to coordinate some smaller group discussions about the challenges and opportunities. Some Penn State students may be interested in doing market research to support that small group’s discussions with data.

If you’d like to be included in the small group discussions – please send an email to Sarah (peacepotter@gmail.com) or me (katherine_watt@hotmail.com) so you can help take this idea through the next few steps.

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