There are probably as many reasons to shop at your neighborhood food co-op as there are shoppers: One person likes the sweet, fresh, organic fruit; another seeks food to fit strict allergies; a third wants to keep her food budget local by purchasing produce grown on area farms.

But how many shoppers choose the co-op because it’s a co-op?

Truth be told, most of us fill our grocery carts without stopping to consider the benefits of a cooperative business model—or even fully understand what a co-op is in the first place.

A group of Neighboring Food Co-op Association staff hold a flag that reads co-op.

The Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA) hopes to fill this knowledge gap. A “co-op of co-ops” based in Shelburne Falls, MA, the NFCA is made up of more than 35 food co-ops and start-up initiatives across New England. The organization was formed in 2010 to help its member co-ops join forces in the common cause of supporting regional food systems and lifting local economies; educating consumers on the benefits of the cooperative business model is part of its core mission.

Co-ops come in many shapes and sizes, but the core principles are the same: A jointly owned and democratically managed business enterprise. The benefits of this structure are likewise varied. For one thing, co-ops are driven more by values than by profits (although, just like any other business, a co-op needs to remain solvent in order to survive). NFCA lists additional benefits: Co-ops are more likely to support local economies; wages are higher and turnover is lower than other businesses; and the co-op model encourages innovation. Members of NFCA, like food co-ops across the country, have been pioneers in support of issues like natural/organic food production, fair trade and food justice, and the local foods movement.

NFCA’s “Go Co-op!” program highlights such strengths. The program includes a labeling effort to identify cooperatively produced items at member stores, investor information for those interested in funding co-ops, and educational efforts like local co-op study groups.

A sign that reads Go Co-op placed in front of an Organic Valley milk package.

Behind the scenes, NFCA runs additional programing designed to help increase the impact of its members. An example is the group’s Farm to Freezer program, which was launched in 2011. Farm to Freezer was born of the simple observation that most frozen foods in member co-ops came from non-local sources. NFCA staff reasoned that local farmers and consumers alike would benefit from making local frozen food available in the off-season.

The organization recruited local farmers and farm co-ops, as well as regional processers, to develop a line of frozen foods grown, processed, and packaged in the northeastern United States. With the help of grants from the National Co-op Grocers and the USDA, the Farm to Freezer effort stocks the frozen food aisle of NFCA members.

Programs like Farm to Freezer demonstrate the unique role that cooperatively structured businesses can play in changing the world for the better, says NFCA’s executive director, Erbin Crowell. Because co-ops proceed from a broad set of values, they are uniquely positioned to solve problems.

“As we consider some of the key challenges of our time, including climate change, economic inequality, and feeding a rapidly expanding global population,” Crowell says, “cooperative enterprise will continue to be a powerful tool for people to meet their own needs and aspirations.”

As a fellow cooperative business, Organic Valley has always been dedicated to supporting the activities of other cooperatives. We are happy to support the Neighboring Food Co-op Association in their efforts to educate about and promote cooperative businesses!