Richmond Food Cooperative

Coming Soon To Scott’s Addition

Next spring will see the emergence of a store that will feed many at a very reasonable price—and feed them well with healthful foods most all of which are locally produced. What’s more, every member of this food cooperative will own a portion of it, become a shareholder and receive dividends when the business starts turning a profit.
Michele Lord and Susan Hill, co-founders of The Richmond Food Cooperative, are planning to plant the new business somewhere in Scott’s Addition, a perfect spot for such an enterprise, centrally located and convenient for Fan and North Side shoppers alike. The food co-op is an un-corporate corporation. Members own it and operate it and benefit from it. They also help decide what foods should be sold there.
The seed of this idea was planted back in New York City where Michele Lord worked at one of the most successful food co-ops in the country—Park Slope on Union Street in Brooklyn. Park Slope boasts 17,000 members and was founded 40 years ago.
While Michele was employed at the department of education and Park Slope, Susan Hill worked as a model and later for an immigrant’s rights advocacy organization. The two had attended high school together in Richmond and happened to meet in New York. “We re-met through a high school reunion function and became fast friends,” Michele remembers.

They both planned on returning to Richmond, but while still in New York, Michele mentioned an idea to Susan that had been pestering her mind for years. “I wasn’t happy with my grocery options back in Richmond,” she says. “And I thought that a food co-op would be valuable and needed in Richmond. So I talked to Susan about it and she was fully on board with that.”
The ultimate objective was clear enough in their minds. As Michele puts it: “We wanted to start a community owned grocery store that would provide local and sustainable food at affordable prices. We wanted to create a store that was user friendly for everyone so they could all eat well, a store that would also pay farmers well.”
Susan nods. “The Richmond Food Cooperative is a little investment from a lot of people,” she says. “That’s what makes it unique and it’s filling in a real void in Richmond.” To join co-op there is a $25 joining fee along with a $125 investment for each adult household member. “So for a two-adult household it’s $275 to join and that will provide a portion of our seed capital,” Susan says. The co-op hopes to have a thousand members before opening; already they have 250 members. “Prices at the co-op will be lower for members,” says Susan. “People will shop knowing that the prices are as affordable as possible. And we will be open to the general public, as well.”
There’s something highly egalitarian in this food co-op, and it’s altogether unlike a traditional corporation that operates with the sole objective of a bottom line.
“One of the really neat things of the coop is that it is so much a representation of the community that starts it and that shops and that profits from it,” Michele says. “People who shop with us are investing locally in a more tangible way than they do at some of the more conventional options that exist here. Members are all part of the decision making process for the store. They have a voice in the entire process of the store.”
The co-op is currently drafting a food policy document that defines words like organic and sustainable—words often misused to pawn off products to unsuspecting consumers. “This document will be available in the store and on our website so people will really be able to understand where they’re shopping and where things come from directly,” says Michele.
The food co-op has already identified scores of growers and other producers whose products will line the shelves in the store. “And a number of the members of the co-op are growers themselves,” says Susan.
Products will come from as near Richmond as possible, which dramatically reduces the carbon footprint, eliminating the need to ship products from far away which consumes fossil fuels for transportation and creates pollution associated with petroleum use. “Less oil and energy will be used to move a product from point A to point B and you’re also buying from growers who use responsible practices,” Susan says. “The decrease on the impact on the environment is significant. Why would you buy tomatoes shipped in from California, when they’re in season right up in Hanover County?”
Michele and Susan envision an 8,000 to 10,000 square foot space in Scott’s Addition as the permanent home of the Richmond Food Cooperative. The space will have a lot of windows and the feel of a warehouse—lofty, with plenty of room. After a moment’s reflection, I can think of a dozen such spaces in Scott’s Addition. “And the real estate there is still affordable,” Susan says.
Up until about 20 years ago, Richmond had a food co-op called Fair Share. ”What I heard is a new health food store opened up in town and they closed down,” says Susan. A number of the people who made Fair Share a reality have stepped forward to help form this new co-op. “It’s been wonderful to have those original organizers handing the baton to the next generation of the food co-op,” Susan says. “There’s a food co-op in Roanoke, there’s one in Harrisonburg, many in North Carolina. There’s no reason Richmond can’t have one and sustain it.”
Michele knows that Richmonders are excited about the opportunity to have a food co-op again. “The interest is there, the momentum is there and we have a crazy following on facebook and twitter,” she says. “The number of hits we get on the blog and the website is really impressive. We know there are people who are watching and waiting, wanting to see the store open so that they can become part of it. We need people to become part of it now.”
There is nothing else in town like it. “The cooperative is a unique model,” says Susan. “We’re serving a special spot in Richmond and because there are no other co-ops in town I don’t think we have any other competition.”
One of the goals of the co-op is to give farmers and other producers the opportunity to sell their wares in other venues, giving them the option to produce more.
“And there are a lot of interesting and unexpected consequences of a food co-op,” Susan says. “The co-op could stimulate more local entrepreneurs to set up shop. Say canned goods, locally made. If people have a place to sell their products they can make a good living. That’s what we’re about, too; helping the local economy.”
Michelle then says, “We are by our mission and our vision. But we’re also a sustainable business that really seeks to give profit back to our members. We want it to be a full circle. Everyone in the co-op is an equal shareholder.”
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