Not many businesses would fill in the front parking with native plants and a patio. But the whole point of cooperatives is to do business differently. The green front yard in front of the former A&P turned Willimantic Food Coop is a welcome relief from the adjacent hard surface streets.
The Willimantic Food Coop began in 1980 and has been in its current location for ten years. Alice, who joined Connecticut’s largest coop in 1984 and has been here ever since, has witnessed our country’s evolution toward embracing healthier eating and more organic foods. “The Alar scare in 1987 focused attention on organics. There’s been increasing interest ever since.” However, the organic market represents a small portion of the food sold in this country. “We are lucky here. We don’t have direct competition. The nearest Whole Foods is thirty minutes away in Glastonbury.” Still, Alice is not inclined to rest in that position. “Our objective is to make high quality food affordable to everyone. We really try to keep our prices in line.”
Alice explained that a cooperative is a not-for profit, which is not the same as a non-profit. The Coop has a governing board and charges lower prices to members, but it pays taxes like any other business. The challenge is to make some profit, but not too much. “Last year we made $15,000 on $5 million in sales, which is a good target. Profits are not distributed to members; Connecticut’s cooperative law, dating from 1897, forbids that. Instead, profits are distributed as staff bonuses, capital improvements, or charitable donations.
Willimantic Food Coop is more than a thriving business with 32 employees in an economically challenged region. It is also a catalyst for local and organic farmers. “There is a resurgence in farming. It’s difficult in Connecticut, where plots are small and land prices high. A decade or two ago, older farmers got out of the business and no one wanted to do that work. Now, there are more people interested in farming.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“I’m more of a futures person. I’d like us to scale back and live more simply. I hardly buy anything. I hardly drive. But I don’t see others doing the same.”