The Hippo


Jul 23, 2019








Concord Food Co-op. Courtesy photo.

NH co-ops

Concord Food Co-op, 24 S. Main St., Concord, 225-6840; 52 Newport Road, New London, 526-6650,
Monadnock Food Co-op, 34 Cypress St., Keene, 355-8008,
Co-op Food Stores of New Hampshire and Vermont, 45 S. Park St., Hanover, 643-2667; 12 Centerra Parkway, Lebanon, 643-4889,
Littleton Food Co-op, 43 Bethlehem Road, Littleton, 444-2800,
Manchester Area Food Co-op,

Co-op crazy
Why New Hampshire’s co-op scene is expanding

By Kelly Sennott

 Food co-ops are spreading throughout New Hampshire like wildfire.

Right now they exist in Concord, Keene, Hanover and Littleton (not to mention the Hanover and Concord expansions to Lebanon and New London, respectively), and a few more are in the works, in Bedford, Walpole and Milford.
You can blame better-educated consumers, say state and regional co-op representatives, but they say the growth is also due to the model itself, promoting quality produce and supporting local farmers and economies alike.
What’s a food co-op?
A food co-op is a food outlet that’s owned by members instead of a handful of shareholders.
At New Hampshire co-ops, membership numbers tend to run high; for example, the Concord Food Co-op has about 7,000 members, the Littleton Co-op has 5,200, Monadnock Food Co-op has about 2,600 and the Manchester Area Food Co-op, which members hope to open this fall in Bedford’s Harvest Market, already has 1,400. Most join for a one-time fee of $100 or so.
As owners, members serve on the board of directors and vote on major decisions. Each vote has the same weight as another, no more, no less.
“When you start a business as a sole proprietor, you’re making the decisions yourself, but with a co-op, it’s owned by the community. And that serves as an important piece. It’s getting the community to invest in that vision and join,” said Bonnie Hudspeth, member programs manager of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association, via phone. “Having that democratic process is really crucial to the process.”
Food co-ops sell whatever the members want, but normally, that’s natural, locally produced food, from fresh meats, fruits and vegetables to specialty products. Many offer workshops, classes or cafes of some sort.
“It’s about buying local and knowing where food comes from and developing a sustainable food source locally,” said Greg Lessard, director of development at the Concord Food Co-op. 
Before members start up a co-op, they need to make certain there’s a customer base to support it.
“It’s no different from any business. But one of the larger challenges for a co-op delivering products that are local and organic is the price. The product is just much more expensive to produce. It’s much more labor-intensive to have it on a small-scale farm if you don’t have the industrial equipment of larger farms. Most people don’t understand the amount of work farming takes,” Lessard said.
The benefits
Co-op people like the model because of this ability to control where their food’s coming from. 
“There’s a big disconnect, many times, for the average consumers between the products they’re buying and who owns them,” said Patrick Neily, general manager with the Manchester Area Food Co-op. “So it’s really empowering to be a member of a food co-op.”
And with this model, the organization doesn’t exist for profit or shareholders. It goes back to the membership somehow, in cash, check or another form. 
Emerald Levick, Monadnock Food Co-op marketing/membership manager, said that, at three years old, the Monadnock Food Co-op would be the youngest member of National Co-op Grocers giving member owners patronage refunds this year because it was able to reach its cumulative break-even point.Members can cash a check or donate it to the co-operative community fund.
Lessard said the system’s also friendlier to smaller farmers.
“With something like Market Basket, the purchasing is going to be going on at headquarters. It will be at a much greater volume. It’s difficult for a chain store to buy local if there isn’t enough produced for their demand, so even if they’re offering organic, they’re generally not going to go local unless it’s a big farm,” Lessard said.
A co-op as an entity is smaller, so it can work with smaller farms.
“A lot of farmers own farm stands or go to farmers markets, but they like having the guaranteed sales from a co-op,” Lessard said. “They’re growing something specifically for us, in many cases — we tell them what we need, and they plant it and know there’s a market for it.”
Food co-ops can also boost the local economy, which, Neily pointed out, is something many more people are conscious about since the recession. Hudspeth agreed.
“When people saw what was happening with their money [during the recession], they felt the desire to empower themselves economically and have a say in how a business is run,” said Hudspeth, who was a major force in starting the Monadnock Co-op, for which efforts began in 2007. “We were launching a member loan campaign in the recession, and more than 100 people made loans. It’s a testimony to how the co-op model works in terms of meeting the needs of the community and empowering people to organize a business that meets their needs and benefits them.”
The history and future of NH co-ops
The New Hampshire co-op scene is doing very well when you look at per capita numbers compared with those of other states. Texas, for example, has a grand total of one. 
The concept for the management of each co-op is the same, but each has a different character dependent on its geography, demographic and age. 
The Hanover Co-op started in 1936 and is the oldest in the state, celebrating its 80th birthday this year. It has a lot of arms; one is the Lebanon Co-op down the street, which opened in 1997. Another is the Co-op Community Food Market in Lyme, which is a combination gas station and convenience store. The main branch is currently in the midst of a $5.3 million renovation, which began in October.
Neily worked with the Hanover Co-op for years and is using it as a model for what he envisions for the Manchester Area Food Co-op, with one major location in Bedford opening soon and arms in neighboring communities later on. It’s currently in the midst of a final push, a $1.5 million fundraising campaign to take over the Harvest Market location. The deadline is Oct. 1. Once the money’s raised, Neily said he plans to analyze Harvest Market sales and tap into local producer resources, including New Hampshire Made and local farmers. He thinks the area’s been in need of a co-op for a while.
“Our goal is to be able to support our region of Greater Manchester,” Neily said. “There are a few very good sources for natural, organic and especially local food, and the demographic of this region very much supports the idea of a co-op.”
The Concord Food Co-op has been around about 30 years, according to its site, and has a cafe and hosts regular workshops. It includes a New London location, acquired in 2009 when it purchased the Kearsarge Cooperative Grocer. But its most recent project involves a strategic partnership with the Canterbury Shaker Village, utilizing its organic garden space to grow crops in order to fill produce department gaps. (For example, Lessard said, it struggled finding local strawberry producers.)
The Monadnock Co-op is the youngest New Hampshire co-op in full swing, having started in April 2013. It recently installed solar panels, which went live in May, making it the first community-supported solar system in the region.
In the co-op world, in New Hampshire and around the globe, everyone knows one another, and everyone’s supportive of one another.
“We all want each other to be successful because if one is not, it actually hurts the cooperative system,” Neily said. 

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