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|Co-op Corner : River Valley edition : Thursday, 19 September 2019 00:00 EDT : a service of The Public Press|
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– Sidney J. Harris
October is Co-op Month!
by Erbin Crowell
Editor's Note: Co-op Corner is a new quarterly feature, exploring the world of cooperatives.
Recent research has made the case that the success of humans as a species is rooted in our ability to collaborate, to recognize our interdependence and work together for mutual benefit. And co-operative enterprise – businesses that are owned and democratically governed by the people who use them to meet their shared needs and goals – has been part of the fabric of American society since its beginnings, reflecting ideals of democracy, self-help, and mutual aid.
None other than Benjamin Franklin helped organize what is said to be the first mutual insurance company in the colonies in 1752. The Philadelphia Contributionship, which remains in operation today, was organized as a fire insurance company owned by its policyholders, rather than investors. The renowned scholar and civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois, born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, chronicled the widespread use of the co-operative model by early African American communities as a tool for economic empowerment. And generations of European immigrants to North America organized worker co-ops, farmer co-ops, food co-ops and credit unions to improve their lives in a new land.
In 1948, Minnesota became the first state to celebrate Co-op Month, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued the first national proclamation in October of 1964, reflecting the importance of co-operatives to America's family farmers and rural communities. Since 1971, the National Co-operative Business Association (NCBA CLUSA) has continued the tradition of national celebrations, promoting co-operative enterprise to consumers, activists and policy makers as a model for inclusive economic development.
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For Co-op Month this October, NCBA CLUSA has announced the theme of “Co-ops Commit . . .”, inviting co-operatives to complete the slogan in a way that reflects their priorities and visions for the future. For many food co-ops, this is an opportunity to communicate their commitment to their local communities. For example, Co-op Food Stores, which was founded in 1936 and operates four grocery stores and a service station in New Hampshire and Vermont, recently celebrated the first anniversary of their “Pennies for Change” program. This simple effort, which invites customers to round up their purchases to the nearest dollar to support community organizations, generated over $260,000 for local non-profits in its first twelve months.
Food co-ops are also committed to local producers, and a recent survey by the Neighboring Food Co-op Association found that member co-ops across New England and New York purchased more than $60 million in local products last year, providing a boost to the regional economy. Taken together, the 35 food co-ops and start-ups of the NFCA are locally owned by more than 120,000 members and provide employment for over 2,000 people.
Farmer co-ops are committed to the survival of family farms and rural communities. Agri-Mark Co-operative, which has its roots in 1916 and markets dairy products under the Cabot and MacAdam brands, recently invested in new processing infrastructure in West Springfield, MA. The facility will process and market surplus skim milk, a byproduct of butter production, providing local jobs and supporting the viability of the dairy farms that are so central to our landscape. Founded in 1985, Deep Root Organic Co-op in Johnson, VT, is part of a more recent wave of co-ops committed to organic agriculture and enabling its members to market fresh produce across the Northeast and beyond.
Credit Unions are also co-operative businesses – not-for-profit financial institutions that are owned by their account holders, the people who use them for savings and checking accounts, for loans, and for retirement funds. Since 1948, International Credit Union Day has been celebrated on the third Thursday of October, and the theme this year is “Dreams Thrive Here”.
More than half of Vermonters are credit union members, and the Association of Vermont Credit Unions (AVCU) has an ongoing commitment to financial literacy, working with local high schools to offer free “financial reality” fairs. These events invite students to explore possible careers and make decisions about what their expenses might be. It is often an eye opener when they see how much they have – or don't have – at the end of the month. Credit Union staff counsel them along the way and compare notes among students afterwards to help them think about the future.
“As co-operatives, the mission of credit unions is to improve the financial well-being of their members – the people who own them,” says AVCU President Joe Bergeron. “With ever-increasing costs of living, it's natural that credit unions would work to educate young people about the financial decisions they'll face in life after their school years, and invite them to be part of the co-operative movement.”
As we celebrate the arrival of fall color here in the Northeast, Co-op Month offers an opportunity to learn more about the many co-operatives and credit unions that are part of the fabric of our communities. From farmer co-ops to food co-ops, worker co-ops to credit unions, housing co-ops to artisan co-ops, co-operative enterprises empower people to meet their needs together, growing stronger local economies, and building a better world for everyone. For more information and a map of co-ops across our region, please visit www.nfca.coop.
Erbin Crowell is Executive Director of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association and serves on the Board of Directors of the National Co-operative Business Association / CLUSA International.
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