Will Long Beach Get a Cooperative Grocery Store?
The September 2012 closing of an Albertsons grocery store in central Long Beach inadvertently opened the door to a new idea. Residents began soliciting chains like Trader Joe's and Sprouts to come in, only to have their letter-writing campaigns rebuffed on the grounds that the area didn't fit demographic needs (aka not white enough). Out of the frustrating experience, neighbors began wondering if a co-op grocery store might better serve the community and its needs.
"If nobody is going to open a market, maybe we should open it ourselves," says Damon Lawrence, a founding board member of Long Beach Grocery Co-op.
He originally got the idea from a vacation he took with his wife in Portland, Oregon. It was there that Lawrence got his first co-op experience, when a cashier at the Alberta Co-op Grocery store asked him if he was a member. "What does that mean?" Lawrence replied. He got the whole spiel in response. "This is owned by the community, really?" he asked in bewilderment.
If readers are bewildered too, it's because cooperatives as an alternative economy don't get much media play. They're businesses owned and managed by workers and consumers as opposed to corporate structuring. About 30,000 co-operatives currently employ 2 million people in the United States, according to the National Co-operative Business Association.
Thinking of replicating the consumer-owned model in his own hometown, Lawrence began researching and was surprised by what he learned. "They are all over the United States, even in the South!" he says. Locally, in Southern California, grocery stores organized in such a way are rarer though. San Diego and Isla Vista have them, but OC and the IE don't. Lawrence did find Co-opportunity Natural Foods in Santa Monica and headed out to find out more. "I was floored by how well it was run, how friendly and knowledgeable the staff was," he says. Their sustainable food system principles impressed him as well.
The experience convinced Lawrence further to spearhead the effort in his city. That night he turned to Facebook and started a simple "Long Beach Grocery Co-op" page. It struck a nerve overnight as he awoke to 200 "likes."The site now inches towards 7,000. Board members introduced themselves offline recently as they set up a booth for the city's Green Prize Festival. Onlookers met them with enthusiasm.