From the Board: The First Two Principles

by Patty Casebolt – Board Member

“What exactly is a co-op and why would I want to join?”

This was the question my friend recently asked me. She knows that I am on the board of the Medford Co-op and a huge fan of food co-ops in general. Although she occasionally shops there from time to time, she is not an owner herself. I paused and thought about my reply. I realized that for me, the answer was so much more than what I could explain during our quick five minute coffee break. My quick answer was “I love the way I feel when I walk into any food co-op. On some level, I just feel healthier in all areas of my mind, body and spirit. When I shop at the co-op, I know I have access to food that is locally sourced and organic whenever possible. I feel good about giving back to my community and that the co-op shares this vision.”

Because there is long answer, I want to give her (and our co-op community) more background on the common principles shared by all food co-ops. I’m going to focus on the first two of the seven guiding cooperative principles.

The first principle is voluntary and open membership. Cooperatives are voluntary organizations which are open to all who want to use their services without gender, social, racial, political, or religious discrimination. This is one of the best reasons I love co-ops. I love the diversity of the people I see at the store, as well as the fact that you do not have to be a owner to shop there.

The second principle is democratic member control. Cooperatives are democratic organizations controlled by their members-owners – those who buy the goods or use the services of the cooperative and who actively participate in setting policies and making decisions. I remember asking a big box market in our community about having an organic option  for a product I wanted. I was told they do not make these decisions because they are owned by a national organization who controls everything. I really appreciate the difference at the co-op. I have a voice and can participate equally with the rest of the co-op owners.

After my coffee break, I continued to reflect on my friend’s question. I considered other information that would be useful to share with her. One unique factor of all food cooperatives around the world is they generally operate according to the same core principles and values. These principles were adopted by the International Cooperative Alliance in 1995. They are based on guidelines written by the founders of the first modern cooperative formed in 1844 in Rochdale, England. There are seven core principles that are the foundation of food co-ops today.

Having time to reflect on a few of these principles has renewed my appreciation for having access to a local food co-op. I’m excited to be able to share a more comprehensive answer the next time someone asks me, “what exactly is a coop and why would I want to join?”