A Brief History of New Pioneer Food Co-op
Theresa Carbrey, Education and Member Services Coordinator
Where did the Co-op come from? How did we arrive at our current success; a locally owned, democratically controlled grocery operation with two stores, 180 employees, and $20 million in annual sales?
A Co-op is Born
In Iowa City a group of young people dreamed of food free of preservatives, grown on soil that was treated with respect, and distributed in a way that served human need rather than greed. Looking to kindred spirits from the past, the group organized a food distribution system based on the 1843 Rochdale Co-op Principles.
New Pioneer Food Co-op was founded on the Co-op Principles in 1971. The wisdom of these principles continues to guide us today. The principles tell us to be welcoming to all, to have member-owners democratically control the business, and to ask each member-owner to contribute to our economic success. As a co-op we commit to staying free of entanglement with other groups or government, and to providing education for members and staff. We pledge to work with other co-ops for our mutual benefit and to work for the sustainable development of our communities.
The early Co-op featured an extensive bulk section with lots of grains and beans, peanut butter and honey, granola and cheese. Working members helped run the business. Members at large elected the Board of Directors, who oversaw the business. The cash drawer was a cigar box. From these humble beginnings the Co-op grew and grew. The well-educated and socially aware Iowa City community supported a series of expansions, both in product line and store size.
The Co-op has experienced controversy throughout its history. For example, as the Co-op grew, so did internal tension among staff and members about product line. Were we a natural foods store that happened to be cooperatively owned? Or were we a co-op that got its start with natural foods? After thoughtful and passionate dialogue the membership decided to sell formerly ‘forbidden’ products like coffee, chocolate, meat, wine, and sugary treats. Each member and shopper could decide for themselves what they would purchase. The staff would locate and offer the best quality items available. The emphasis was on fresh, local, natural, organic, fairly traded, and “gourmet”. Members really do control this business!
The controversy over product line helped the membership mature in philosophy. It was okay for our co-op to reflect our collective views, even if it might not imitate exactly our personal views. So vegetarians walked past the meat case, coffee hounds walked past the dry beans. Everyone really was welcome!
You Own It!
The current member–owner plan of a one-time $60 fee for membership was created in 1983. With this infusion of capital, the Co-op was able to purchase better shelving and coolers. We were able to offer more products. When times are good, the Co-op generates a little more money than is needed for expenses. Then the Board has the discretion to pay a dividend to members proportionate to their purchases. Thus each member is empowered to participate in the economic success of the Co-op.
What issues inspire the membership today? The Co-op serves members by seeking to lower prices, to improve wages, and to source and promote local foods. In 2006 New Pioneer banded together with other co-ops in the nation to negotiate better prices from vendors by pooling our orders. That’s ‘cooperation among co-ops’ in action! In 2007 the Co-op supported local producers to the tune of one million dollars. That’s a clear case of honoring the Co-op principle of ‘supporting sustainable development’ of our community.
A Vision for the Future
What does the future hold? The Co-op will continue to reflect the needs of our members as we collectively ponder the issues of the upcoming decade: food transport costs, the challenge of cloned animals, and creating a viable response to obesity and diabetes. Can the Co-op help by hosting more local gardens, by promoting use of bicycles, and by asking hard questions about how to improve food security? Stay tuned! The Co-op will continue to provide nourishment for mind, body, and soul.