Maine celebrates National Co-op Month

Just co-operate!

By DEIRDRE FULTON |  October 10, 2012, The Portland Phoenix

HAVING THEIR SAY Worker-owners can weigh in at Local Sprouts.

It’s the Year of the Dragon (Chinese Zodiac), the Year of the Girl (Girl Scouts of the USA), and, perhaps less well known, the International Year of Cooperatives, according to the United Nations. Citing their capacity to empower member-owners, promote rural development, and offer an alternative to existing economic models, the UN is using its worldwide platform in 2012 to increase public awareness about, and economic investment in, cooperatives of all types.

And what better time to celebrate the International Year of Cooperatives than during National Co-op Month, organized by the Washington DC-based National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA) to highlight the ways in which these business models can help combat big issues like the emergence of American food deserts (places without easy access to healthy food), growing obesity levels, and even unemployment.

Here in the United States, more than 29,000 cooperatives — businesses owned and managed by the people who use their services, who also share in the profits — operate in every sector of the economy, including childcare, banking, and agriculture, supporting two million jobs and generating $652 billion in annual sales, according to the NCBA.

There are 150 co-ops in Maine, of which about half are credit unions, says Larry Dansinger, a local activist who works with Cooperative Maine, the statewide organization dedicated to promoting and supporting cooperatives. In addition to several food co-ops (like the one we have in Portland or Rising Tide Community Market in Damariscotta), Maine is also home to housing, electric, fishing, and artists’ cooperatives.

This month, Cooperative Maine and its affiliates are hosting several events around the state to make cooperatives more visible in their communities.

Take, for example, the Portland Food Co-op (PFC), which has been operating out of a warehouse on Hampshire Street in the East End for two years. The PFC, whose members take advantage of the co-op’s wholesale prices to buy grocery items like grains and produce, now has 359 member-owners; the vast majority of those (89 percent) actually buy things through the co-op (the rest are simply investors). According to PFC board member Claire Houston, a full 50 percent of the items they buy are from Maine sources.

Always seeking new members, the PFC has grown steadily since its inception several years ago; the average monthly sales so far this year are $18,000, compared to $8000-10,000 in 2010. Within the next few months, member-owners can expect to see some commonly ordered items available for sale on co-op shelves (as opposed to having to pre-order them), and a five-year plan is in place to renovate and expand into a full-blown retail operation. The PFC will host a public potluck on October 26 at 6 pm in its Hampshire Street space (email for more details). If you’ve been considering joining, now’s the time.

The Local Sprouts Cafe — Portland’s only worker-cooperative (meaning that the workers also own the business and all decisions are made democratically) — is also participating in National Co-op Month by screening the documentary Shift Change, which showcases worker-owned enterprises around the world, on Monday, October 22; later in the week, on October 25, they’ll host an afternoon workshop, “Creating Worker Cooperatives in Our Community,” through which they hope to provide not just information but also inspiration and practical resources for burgeoning entrepreneurs or businesspeople considering a transition to the worker-cooperative model. (See

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