[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #2 in February 2006]
When you talk to Dill Pickle Food Co-op (dpfc) instigator Kathleen Duffy, it’s easy to see how her dreams of a neighborhood source for organic food turned into the little idea that could. With one email asking a few friends what they thought about starting a food co-op, Kathleen publicly asked the question that many had only thought to themselves. Now, plans are in the works to bring fresh, organic food to the residents of a few grocery-impaired neighborhoods on the northwest side of Chicago. ,
A year ago, none of the four members of the DFPC Steering Committee had ever met. Now, they spend hours working together to establish a co-operative storefront which will offer healthy, inexpensive food to the residents of Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Ukrainian Village and Wicker Park. The Co-op’s Steering Committee members—Jen Roth Cozad, Kathleen Duffy, Madeline Fan and Jonathan Rhodes—explain the goals, commitments, and frustrations of starting a co-op.
First principle: Voluntary and Open Membership
Kathleen sent out an email to 20 friends and received over 300 responses: “I knew the time was right to do this. The community response indicates that people are looking for a healthy, non-corporate alternative for food shopping.”
Jen “Co-ops bring together good food and good people. It is astonishing that the great city of Chicago lacks a decent food co-op.”
Supporters have done myriad things to help dpfc reach actualization, from attending meetings to organizing fundraisers. Volunteers do public relations, maintain the website and run events. About 200 have joined the listserv, many waiting to become members in February 2006 or to shop once the storefront is opened.
The DFPC is seeking advisory board members to donate time in specialty areas, such as law and accounting. This is a true community effort, so every level of involvement is welcome. Though eventually all will be rewarded with a great place to buy groceries, less tangible benefits are achieved through the organiz-
Jonathan “It’s wonderful working with a new and diverse group towards a shared goal of community development. There are all of these dedicated people out there on the listserv and volunteering, who are trying to make our city a better place.”
Second principle: Democratic Member Control
All members of the dpfc will be equal, with one vote per member. Members are co-owners of the business, so they have a say in the Co-op’s governance. Though bylaws have not yet been determined, the Steering Committee hopes to avoid a ‘majority rules’ structure in favor of the fairer consensus model that they have used thus far.
Jonathan “Working with a consensus model for decision making is often a frustrating endeavor since we are working with a revolving group of people that don’t know each other very well; however, it pays off in the end when the group comes to an agreement together.”
At the February meeting, members will decide issues such as whether to have work requirements, member discounts and yearly or one-time dues.
Kathleen “People have so many different and compelling reasons for being involved: political, economic, health. We had a spirited discussion on the listserv about whether we’re going to be vegan. This was two years prior to the co-op opening! We don’t want to violate anyone’s principles, but there are times that things will slam up against each other. So we need to talk about that now.”
Third principle: Member Economic Participation
When memberships are offered in February, the dpfc is counting on people to join right away in order to raise the capital to open the store.
Jen “Right now is the most important time to become a member. If people want to have this co-op materialize they need to invest both time and money, or else it won’t happen.”
Jonathan “Initial investors will get the dpfc off the ground and show the outside community that there is a broad base of support for co-operative models. This should inspire others to come on board. Early members will have an important role in shaping the organization’s products, policies and procedures.”
Kathleen “We need to be able to approach a bank and say that we have supporters and funding. We hope to have an installment plan for people who can’t pay the fee all at once, and will also investigate public aid acceptance.
Plus, we might have an option to work toward the membership contribution amount. We are prepared to do a loud membership campaign to get people involved. We’ll need members to evangelize in order to open.”
Jonathan “It is important to support alternative models of area economic development—the dpfc will give our neighbors the opportunity to have ownership in a storefront, and keep the business’s profits in the community.”
Membership costs and details were presented at the January meeting and will be voted upon in February.
Fourth principle: Autonomy and Independence
The member/owners of the dpfc may also be eligible for dividends. Unlike corporate groceries, the profits will stay in the neighborhood. Members will have input on what products the store will carry, what distributors will be used and other major decisions.
Madeline “Fundraising for opening the store and membership are two separate issues. If someone has money they’d like to invest to help open the Co-op, that’s great, but the person still has to pay the membership fee to have a vote. We’ve agreed that all members will be equal, so that no one has more say in the business than anyone else.”
Fifth principle: Education, Training, and Information
Though there are active CSAs and buying clubs in Chicago, a brick-and-mortar store is necessary on numerous levels. The visibility
will help draw people in and increase aware-ness of food issues. The Co-op will serve as a community center for dinners, discussions
Jen “A co-op is a gathering space. It is important for people to have a storefront to unite them.
It also causes other people to come in, look around and find out that there are alternatives to the corporate chains.”
Jonathan “I see the Co-op as an opportunity to serve the basic health needs of our community by providing healthy food options that are otherwise unavailable, and through public programs aimed at health education and community involvement.”
Kathleen “Food is a basic need that is common to all of us. We have this amazing and diverse area around us in terms of income, race, education level and age. In order to succeed, the Co-op will need to be connected to all facets of this community. For the segment of the population in this area that doesn’t have health insurance, eating well is a good first line of defense.”
Madeline “The health food movement is about letting people be self-sufficient. If you become ill, how can you control that through your diet? Rather than going to a doctor for a temporary treatment, make changes that effect a long-term cure.”
Sixth principle: Co-operation among Co-operatives
The members of the dpfc are creating alliances with various community groups, schools and co-ops. Donations of space from the Acme artist community and Spare Room artist co-op, and food donations from Atomix Cafe, Sultan’s Market, and Flying Saucer, have helped the DFPC with fundraisers. Co-operative ventures benefit all involved. “We’ve met with the Centro San Bonifacio, that goes into schools and teach people how to cook things more healthily, such as limiting lard. They do taste tests comparing conventional food to organic. Then the people try to buy the organic food and it’s overpriced.”
With a co-op in the area, people will have the opportunity to purchase healthy food in their own community at affordable prices.
Seventh principle: Concern for Community
The DFPC plans to support local suppliers.
Environmental, socio-economic and political issues are all being considered very carefully.
Madeline “In a buying club, you often buy by the case, so you need a car to transport it and enough space in your house store it. We want to give people a better option.”
Jen “We want it to be a positive force. It should excite and inspire people. A co-op offers so much to a community. The products, the atmosphere, the politics, even the profits of the store continually improve the quality of life in the community.”
The DFPC has not picked a location yet, but plans for a search committee to find rental space this year. Proximity to public transportation will be a deciding factor. The Steering Committee is currently outlining the economic requirements, so that they know how many memberships they’ll need before going to a bank for a loan to make up the rest of the funding. In the meantime, monthly meetings will be held as community dinners, with donations covering the cost of food and any profit going toward the Co-op.