Photograph by Emily Peters

An organic vegetable stand sits outside the Bloomingfoods co-op grocery on Sixth Street in Bloomington. Co-ops are growing so rapidly that the United Nations declared 2012 the "International Year of Cooperatives."

Bloomington Web Master Emily Brown stops by the Bloomingfoods on Sixth Street every morning for breakfast on her way to work at City Hall. During breaks, she often enjoys lunch there as well.

She didn’t realize the store functioned as a cooperative grocery until she spoke with a member about the benefits a year and a half ago.

“This is the first community that I’ve lived in with a co-op that I knew of,” the 30-year-old Brown said.

Cooperative grocery stores, such as Bloomingfoods, are increasing in popularity nationwide. These member-owned and member-governed businesses are growing in membership and in numbers as more Americans search for different ways to do business.

According to the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA), more than 29,000 cooperatives exist in the United States with over 120 million members. The numbers are increasing at such an astounding rate that the United Nations General Assembly declared 2012 as “International Year of Cooperatives.”

Read more Student Reports

This story is part of a series called Student Reports that features the work of students at the IU School of Journalism.

Co-ops survive the tough economy

Jeanne Lakso, marketing programs specialist from the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA), believes the economy positively affects cooperative grocery stores.

“More people are eating at home,” she said. “They’re cooking from scratch. Co-ops offer resources for that.”

This year, five new co-ops opened in the country, and approximately 250 are in development, Lakso said. The Development Cooperative (DC) also formed within NCGA in 2008 to address the rise in co-ops. The DC helps new co-ops develop, expand and improve membership.
"Something that’s driving membership, growth and support for co-ops is a certain level of disillusionment with the corporate business model." - Steve Stroup, Bloomingfoods
Part of this growth is due to an increase in awareness, according to Lakso. NCGA strives to expand the public’s knowledge on what a co-op is and how it works, which allows citizens to see that being part of a co-op comes with a multitude of benefits.

“I think co-ops from the very beginning have always been value-based businesses,” she said. “People see co-ops as trustworthy, and I think that’s really important.”

Steve Stroup, membership director at Bloomingfoods, also believes this concept affects membership.

Bloomingfoods’ membership has doubled in the past six years, he said. In 2005,about 4,000 members participated. Today, 9,500 residents benefit from the co-op. Stroup also noted that these numbers are per household. So there could be more than 30,000 people benefiting from Bloomingfoods, he said.

“Something that’s driving membership, growth and support for co-ops is a certain level of disillusionment with the corporate business model,” Stroup said. “The corporate business structure is very motivated by the profit motive. The co-op model is very different than that.”

According to Stroup, co-op models put the consumer in charge. These models allow members buy into the company and count as partial owners. This gives them more say in decisions involving co-ops, which results in more control over items they purchase.

Members participate in a variety of ways to make their voices heard in their companies. Surveys, open meetings and suggestion boxes are a few options.

“I think Americans and folks around here in particular are just a little sick at looking at what’s happening on Wall Street,” Stroup said.
"More people are eating at home. They’re cooking from scratch. Co-ops offer resources for that." - Jeanne Lakso, National Cooperative Grocers Association
Bloomingfoods, like many other co-ops, strives to find the best food possible, Stroup said. Consumers find locally grown and organic food throughout the three stores in Bloomington. Members can purchase these items at discounted prices through programs such as the bulk bins program, which provides large quantities for a lower cost.

Another appealing aspect is the concern for community, Stroup said. Bloomingfoods tries to work with as many small, local producers as possible to promote growth in the community. It also promotes local art by showcasing art in the store and doing sponsorships.

“The whole co-op world has decided we don’t operate in isolation,” Stroup said. “We operate in the context of the community we’re members of. Bloomingfoods, for instance, looks at the various ways we can make a contribution to the health of this community.”

According to the NCGA website, Americans are latching onto these values as co-ops spring up all over the country. NCGA works with 122 members that own nearly 160 storefronts in 34 states, with annual sales of about $1.3 billion.

These numbers are only increasing as Americans make the conscious decision to eat healthier and support community, according to Stroup.

"I want them to look at them [co-ops] and say, ‘I want to be a part of that,'" he said. “This is different than what I’ve always done. This is different than Sam’s Club. It feels more human, and I like it better.’”

Demand will only increase

Jean Kautt, from member services at Bloomingfoods, also believes the demand for co-ops will increase in the future. She started working with Bloomingfoods six years ago, so she witnessed the membership increase firsthand.
"I think this awareness towards good and safe food is really not something that’s going to go away." - Jean Kautt, Bloomingfoods
As a member, she enjoys the perks that go along with investing in the company, such as coupon books filled with “co-op deals” that are distributed to members. The benefits of membership combined with healthy food create a deal that many people can’t pass up, she said.

“I think this awareness towards good and safe food is really not something that’s going to go away,” Kautt said. “It’s just going to get stronger and stronger.”

As a member, Brown thinks the desire to eat healthy while still getting a good price is important for consumers. Because she eats at Bloomingfoods so frequently, she views the co-op as a resource.

Each purchase counts as points, which eventually add up to more savings. And with so many options available in the store, Brown said, she can always find something.

“I feel like it has something for everybody,” she said. “Everything’s fresh. I feel like when I go there I know I can find something healthy and homemade.”

Emily Peters can be reached at .