Why a Food Co-op is Better than a Chain Store
by Meredith MacVittie
At the end of 2014 it was announced that Bottom Dollar Food was selling all of their local stores to Aldi, another discount grocer. This meant that the Bottom Dollar Food store in Ambler, which had only been open for about a year, would close, and Aldi would evaluate if it wanted to put its own store in its place. In March 2015 Aldi announced that, unfortunately, Ambler would not be a community where it would be opening a location.
But was that announcement really that unfortunate?
In reality, this decision presents an opportunity for Ambler Borough and the surrounding communities to take control of the grocery store business in this area.
Sure, Ambler has a large variety of places to shop for food nearby. Giant, Whole Foods, Trader Joes and Wegmans are all within a 5 to 10 minute drive (which actually makes it highly likely that none would expand into the Borough). Virtually all Ambler residents already drive to those places for their grocery shopping. But the key word here is “drive.” In a dense, walkable community like Ambler, who wants to drive a few miles just to pick up milk? Of course, any grocery store in Ambler would need to have parking, but what about those who can no longer drive or choose to live in Ambler because they don’t own a car and can walk to transit and other amenities? Now that it's summer, it is especially nice to stretch your legs, take a stroll down Butler Avenue, and wave to your neighbors while on a mission for ice cream or a cold beer. Shouldn’t a grocery store provide the opportunity to interact with the community as well?
Of course, any grocery store in Ambler Borough would have the benefit of convenience. What makes a food co-op a better choice?
Reliability. A co-op is owned by its members, people who live in the community and have a vested interest in the co-op functioning and flourishing. So many individuals will have an economic and personal interest in the co-op and be able to vote on co-op activity that it will be next to impossible for it to relocate far away and closure is a lot less likely. After 5 years, 90% of cooperatives are still in business, while only 3 - 5% of traditional businesses are still operating in that time period.
In fact, community ownership is one of the main benefits of running a co-op. The owners can influence which products will be carried, where in town the co-op will be located, and even how it is operated from an economic stand point, such as the amount of money given to staff bonuses, capital improvements and member dividends. Swarthmore Co-op has been in existence since the 1920's, and while they had to move into a larger location just over a decade ago, they have been serving their community for nearly a century! That’s something very few corporate grocery stores can claim.
Sustainability. With their focus on the health of the community, local sustainability is often a key component of food co-ops. Of course, in order to serve as the neighborhood grocery store, the co-op will need to carry items that aren’t grown in Southeastern Pennsylvania, like citrus fruits, bananas, and avocados. But for items that are produced in this area, it makes sense to stock them, as that produces the smallest amount of “food miles” possible – the distance your food has to travel to reach your plate. Fewer food miles mean less use of fossil fuels and less wear-and-tear on trucks and airplanes. Additionally, by sourcing local food, the co-op can support environmental sustainability in other ways, such as partnering with small farmers who use few or no pesticides, or who maintain a variety of heirloom breeds of fruit, vegetables or livestock. These choices help maintain the ecological diversity of our area and ensure environmental sustainability.
Economy. A co-op will create permanent jobs for our community. Given co-ops focus on customer service, they tend to hire more staff than corporate chain grocery stores. While a major grocery chain would hire cashiers and shelf stockers, and perhaps even managers, from the local community, most have corporate offices located in other states, or even other countries. These upper management jobs are benefiting someone else’s community, with decisions often being made thousands of miles away about what products to stock and where to source those products. a food co-op will benefit our local community by creating permanent, sustainable jobs at various income points, as well as engaging local businesses and food producers, such as farmers, butchers, cheese mongers, delivery people, accountants, and more. By putting a co-op in the middle of an already thriving community, it will also draw in people who already travel to Ambler for great amenities like independent shops and restaurants – and also encourage more people to patronize those businesses as they are discovered through shopping in Ambler. The opening of a co-op will have a waterfall effect of increasing local business production and amassing economic output, not just at the co-op but throughout the community and region.
It’s clear that Ambler doesn’t need another grocery chain store! We need a co-op!