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Green and bare it

There is a distinct chance that Tacoma will have a source

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I just ate a Hot Pocket. When it emerged from the microwave, it looked like something you might pull out of a clogged vacuum cleaner. It tasted like salted silicon. When the Tacoma Food Co-op opens, I’m going to stop eating Hot Pockets.

That’s right, there is a distinct chance that Tacoma will have a source for affordable, high-quality, mostly locally-produced and organic food available in the near future. The brainchild of a group of local volunteers, the Tacoma Food Co-op recently announced its e-mail list had grown to some 400 interested members. With a recently-revived steering committee and a surge of community will driving the effort forward, incorporation as a legal entity and creating a membership structure have graduated from challenge to formality.

Organizer and steering committee member Amber Englund says she didn’t know much about co-ops when she decided to help form one in late 2006. Today, she speaks with confidence and authority. She talks about the Tacoma Food Co-op as if it were only a matter of time.

Several hundred Tacomans apparently can’t wait for her to be right.

“The more I talked to people about food and about Tacoma, the more I heard about how there aren’t many fresh food sources,” she says. “So I started researching and found out about food co-ops. That’s how it started.”

Englund and a small group of volunteers have nursed the co-op concept with the help of seeder organization the Northwest Cooperative Development Center and a rotating crew of volunteers. A number of committees are gathering information about where to place the co-op, what kind of demand exists, how to begin incorporation, how to find seed money, and how to best structure membership.

According to the Northwest Cooperative Development Center, a cooperative is a business. Co-ops are different than other businesses and non-profits, however. Co-ops are owned by members, with dividends paid to members in the form of high-quality, affordable groceries, rather than in cash. Members finance and operate the business for mutual benefit, rather than fostering accumulation of cash for a few shareholders or owners. Control of operations is democratic. The more members shop, the more they save on groceries, and the more they receive in so-called patronage refunds or dividends. Unlike standard businesses, which pay dividends based on who owns the most shares, co-ops pay out based on how frequently members shop and how much they buy. Cooperatives generally offer the convenience and variety of other grocers, perform similar functions, and must follow the same sound business practices to survive. They are incorporated under state laws and pay their taxes like other businesses, with minor differences in how income taxes are paid.

One of the clear goals of the Tacoma Co-op crew is to keep food affordable for all Tacomans, rather than catering exclusively to its wealthier residents. The organic food movement is frequently criticized for being too expensive to benefit people with meager incomes.

“It’s a huge need in our community,” says newly-appointed steering committee member Emily Piltch. “We don’t want this to be only tailored to the upper echelon, though. The process we’re going through and the business model we want to adopt will help make things more affordable for everybody.”

Co-op organizers are seeking people interested in holding so-called seeding meetings and hand out information packets about how to get involved. The movement also has arrived at a point where their need for professional help equals the need for enthusiasm and good ideas.

Steering committees dedicated to outreach, fundraising and other functions need members — especially members with professional experience and knowledge. Current needs include legal help, event planning, fundraising, Web design and maintenance, and administration.

Fundraising will commence after the organization has incorporated legally and filed all the right paperwork, says Englund.

Co-op fundamentals

Co-ops have been around for more than 150 years. Co-ops of all kinds, from housing to food to investment, generally follow the following principles, provided by the International Cooperative Alliance.

Voluntary and open membership: Cooperatives are voluntary organizations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.

Democratic member control: Cooperatives are democratic organizations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting policies and decision making.

Member economic participation: Members contribute equitably to, and democratically control the capital of their coop.

Autonomy and independence: Cooperatives are autonomous, self-help organizations controlled by their members.

Education, training and information: Cooperatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees so they can contribute effectively to the coop development.

Cooperation among cooperatives: Cooperatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the cooperative movement by cooperating with one another.

Concern for community: While focusing on members’ needs, cooperatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies accepted by their members.

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