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Friends and Farmers Co-op thriving in central Pennsylvania

by on July 14, 2014 10:10 AM

Several weeks ago I mingled at a conference in Madison, Wisc., answering the same question countless times. Not “Where do you work?” or “What do you do?” At this particular conference, your identity was tied to a single number.

We were in Madison for the 58th Annual Consumer Cooperative Management Association (CCMA) conference, where a fellow board member and I were representing Friends and Farmers Cooperative, a start-up cooperative in State College that was awarded two scholarships to attend this national gathering of some of the most passionate people I’ve ever met.

“How many members do you have?” they wanted to know.

After sharing Madison-grown strawberries, Madison-brewed beer and Madison-produced cheese curds with these people — some from start-up cooperatives, others from cooperatives that were formed long before I was saying “broccoli” — I’m happy to report that 253 is a fine answer to that question. (The co-op just started accepting members in March.)

To quote Suzi Carter, director of programs and partnerships of Food Cooperative Initiative (FCI), a non-profit that exists to help start-ups like Friends and Farmers, "Recruiting 253 members in just a few months is amazing, and among the strongest stage one campaigns we've seen.”

Make that 254, as another member joined since I last checked.

That’s 254 people who have invested money to build a grocery store that reflects their core principles. Some have invested because of their belief in the cooperative model, in which members are also the owners. Others want to shop in a store that will help them make the best food choices for the people who gather around their dinner tables. (While visiting Willy Street Co-op, a cooperative with 31,800 members, I asked a few people why they shopped there. One woman’s response: “I don’t have to keep up with everything because the co-op has done its homework.”)

Many others believe in a core tenet of the Friends and Farmers mission to strengthen the local economy, especially local farmers and food producers, by prioritizing produce, cheese, meat, bread, baked goods, jams and other goodies grown or produced in central Pennsylvania.

Like all co-ops, Friends & Farmers exists to serve its members. As one of the conference keynotes pointed out, this operating structure delivers two key competitive advantages over traditional grocery stores: transparency in where their food comes from and participation in a food system that values sustainability. “We want to feel good about our food,” the keynote remarked. “Even the CEOs of [the traditional food stores] secretly shop at the cooperatives!”

]And they’re everywhere. FCI has helped 70 new co-ops open retail groceries since 2006, and is currently working with 120 communities that are actively organizing cooperatives. Friends & Farmers is firmly plugged into this national network, benefiting from a rich supply of resources and free advice.

With every step toward the ultimate goal of opening a store, you can count on some fun. You can find board members and volunteers at the North Atherton Farmers Market throughout the summer and at the July 15 “Vegetable Festable” at the Boalsburg Farmers Market, which will demonstrate how to use farmers market finds to inspire creative home cooking. (Be sure to grab the complimentary booklet with 15 recipes.) Get more tips on July 16 by visiting Friends & Farmers at Happy Valley Culinary Week's South Hills Venue, then head on out to our volunteer meeting at 7 p.m. July 16 at New Leaf Initiative, 3rd Floor of the Borough Building.

August offers more chances to connect. On Aug. 2, Friends & Farmers is sponsoring “A Slice of Community — People’s Choice Pie Contest” at the Pennsylvania Certified Organic FarmFest. Come out to the Grange Fairgrounds to sample some pie, while learning about organic agriculture and sustainable living. You can work off that pie the next day while joining the Friends & Farmers team in PASA's Bike Fresh Bike Local fundraiser for Centre County.

It's an exciting time to spread the word; now that Friends & Farmers has surpassed the 250 member-household goal, it can start the election process for its first formal board. (Check in the coming weeks for more info.)

So consider joining 254 of your friends and neighbors on an adventure that will transform our community. Some of the rewards of membership start the moment your card arrives: it earns you exclusive discounts at one of 35 local businesses participating in the Friends & Farmers Local Loyalty program.

What does it mean to join? Your membership requires an equity payment of $300. The equity payment is not a fee, nor is it dues. It is not an annual charge. It is an upfront investment that brings with it ownership in a community-owned enterprise—in this case, a grocery store and a blueprint for a new food system. When the store opens depends on the response from our community, and how quickly the membership grows.

As one of my fellow conference attendees remarked, “If you can’t dream something, you’ll never have it.”

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