On a corner lot in the North End of Detroit, the the framing is underway for a Black-led, community-owned grocery cooperative, the first of its type in the city in recent times. Set to open in August 2023, the Detroit People’s Food Co-op will provide the neighborhood’s residents—who are predominantly low- and middle-income African Americans and have long lacked a high-quality, nearby grocery store—an easy source for healthy food.
Malik Yakini, executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, the organization behind the co-op, says the grocery store will address food security, but its mission is bigger than that.
“We’ve heard from people from all communities that this moment had given them the pause to discover cooperation.”
“You can have a Walmart move into a neighborhood and they can provide plenty of food and address food insecurity, but all the profits are extracted from the community,” he explains. “What we’re trying to do is activate the agency within our community so that people see themselves as having the ability to shape not only the food system but also the other systems that have influence over our lives.”
Rather than being owned by a corporation, family, or individual, modern-day grocery co-ops are owned and managed by the community members who shop there. When people buy in and become member-owners, they gain access to financial rewards as well as the right to weigh in on how the co-op is run. Non-owners can shop at most co-ops as well.
There is a long, often hidden history of Black Americans using the co-op model to thrive in the face of systemic racism. Even so, many of the grocery co-ops in the U.S. today were founded in the 1970s and ’80s by educated, affluent white people to provide natural and organic food they couldn’t easily find elsewhere, and they’ve largely served that demographic ever since.
Over the last decade, however, more co-ops rooted in the Black community have taken shape, and the co-op movement as a whole has increasingly shifted its focus from providing natural and organic foods to addressing a different need—the lack of racial equity and food justice. Since 2016, the Food Co-op Initiative (FCI), a Minnesota-based organization that advises and supports startup food co-ops, has seen the number of BIPOC-led co-ops it supports more than double, from seven to 17. The overall number of co-ops FCI works with has also grown, from 62 to 93—and many establishments not explicitly led by people of color are taking seriously the quest for racial equity.
A number of factors have driven the co-op movement’s new focus on food justice. Because mainstream establishments like Whole Foods and Walmart now make organics more readily available, co-ops are no longer required for that purpose alone and are well-positioned to solve a different problem. In addition, the pandemic revealed the brittleness of the supply chain, and the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 prompted a wider recognition of the racial inequity in America inside many white-led institutions.
“When we’re in crisis, we notice what’s inequitable; we notice what’s not working,” says JQ Hannah, FCI’s assistant director. “We’ve heard from people from all communities that this moment had given them the pause to discover cooperation. And they’re like, ‘Oh, we need a different way to do this.’ Also, the people whose communities were hit hardest were done with trusting the system to solve it.”
C.E. Pugh, the CEO of co-op member association National Co+op Grocers (NCG), says there has been “a lot of soul searching and reflection” among leaders of the grocery co-op movement in recent years. “I would say the movement as a whole is really taking seriously and putting their money where their heart is and working at least within our organization and with each other to serve a more diverse community,” he says.
Serving More of the Community
While the shift to serving non-white and disadvantaged communities has been happening for years, the national traumas of 2020 really sped things up, says Hannah. “The funding rightly shifted very quickly to putting the money back in the hands of Black organizers to address food sovereignty,” they say. “Those communities were already doing the work, so they were ready for that influx of resources, and it has really exploded things.”
In addition, existing co-ops are also looking to broaden their customer bases to better reflect their communities. Every neighborhood that NCG markets serve is becoming more diverse, says Pugh. “We’ve done a great job of serving a narrow slice of our communities,” he says. “But how can we serve the better serve the entire community?”
One challenge in serving lower-income customers, Pugh continues, is figuring out how to lower the price point without compromising too much on other values. Many co-ops in the NCG network are trying to offer more non-organic food options, which tend to be less expensive. “We do a lot of volume of natural and organic, and we have good buying power on that side,” Pugh says. “We have not developed that on the non-organic side of the supply chain, but that’s a work in progress.”
Hannah notes, however, that some BIPOC communities are not interested in conventional food. “It’s a moment to think very carefully about throwing food values under the bus in in the pursuit of being affordable,” they say.