Serving Low Income Shoppers

Food co-ops have developed programs and allies that help magnify the co-op’s positive impact in its community.  Examples include regular contributions by the co-op to other nonprofit and cooperative organizations that serve the community and address social needs in areas that complement the co-op’s mission.  Funds for such programs can be generated through voluntary customer add-ons at checkout, through interest earned on the funds, and through other means.


[For discussion of needs-based discounts at the co-op, see the wiki on DISCOUNTS.]


Clem Nilan of Burlington’s City Market described that co-op’s outreach in “Bringing Low-Income Shoppers into the Co-op,”


Julie Cross of Davis Food Co-op described that co-op’s efforts (2008) to address the effects of hard times, in “Grocery Shopping in a Recession”:


Rosemary Fifield of Hanover Co-op wrote (July 20, 2011):  “There is no need to create any privileged group if you allow people to join on a no-pay basis with the understanding that they can accrue the value of their member equity via investment of the patronage refund they now earn. We call them subscribers, we give them a member number to shop with, and they begin to accrue credit for purchases toward a patronage refund. When a patronage refund is given, instead of receiving that refund as a check, 80% goes to purchasing shares in the Co-op. This happens year after year until they are fully paid members. If they are already shopping at your co-op, but avoiding membership because they think they can't afford it, they could be "earning" it with every current purchase for which they do not receive that patronage refund. Obviously, if you are not a patronage refund organization, some other form of creative "earning" may be needed to help individuals who are shopping with you but cannot afford to purchase a membership outright.”


Rod Runyan of Community Mercantile (March 11,2011) commented on that co-op’s approach to supporting ownership for low-income members of the community: “At the Merc we have a program called MercShare that pays for Ownership shares for Vision card holders. (Vision card is the Kansas Food Stamp program.)  It was started by a generous former Board member, and we encourage current Owners to donate patronage checks to the fund. It is easy to administer and easily identifies a segment of our populace who could most use the help in becoming an Owner. The last time I counted we have been able to provide Ownership shares for 67 low-income patrons who are now Owners.”


In the same list serve exchange, Jim DeLuca of Abundance Cooperative described the “scholarship” they created: “When shareholders move away or otherwise decide to withdraw from the co-op, the withdrawal form required has a place for the shareholder to donate his/her share to our scholarship fund.  We have an application for scholarships, which requires only that the applicant write a brief essay as to why they should receive a scholarship.  Generally, if we have any available, I give them to anyone who says they are needy; we do not bother to verify.  However, that share is owned by the scholarship fund monetarily and is basically loaned out with full rights to shop, discounts, run for office and vote; but if that scholarship shareholder moves away the share reverts to the fund.  We do encourage the recipients to buy a share when they are able.  I did this also when I managed Greenfields Market.  Both times it has been quite successful.  I have been pretty surprised by how many people donate their $100 share to the fund when they leave.”


Erbin Crowell (April 2, 2012) described a New England co-ops’ program:  “The Neighboring Food Co-op Association has been working with the Cooperative Fund of New England on a project to "increase access to healthy, regionally-sourced food and food co-op member/ownership and participation among economically marginalized individuals and communities in New England; to support information sharing among food co-ops regarding facilitation of participation of marginalized individuals and communities; and to raise the profile of food co-ops as a solution to the challenge of healthy food access in our region."  For more information on the project, and strategies that some of our member co-ops are using to support healthy food access, visit this link:”