Sustainability Spotlight: The Friendly City Food Co-op

Since moving to Harrisonburg, Virginia, I have been pleasantly surprised–okay, stunned–by the many green and community-oriented groups working to make this place a better place. Shortly after moving here and starting my new job, I was introduced by colleagues to a remarkable project in its formative stages: The Friendly City Food Co-op.

Bringing together community members, local farmers, and everything necessary for healthy, green living, the Friendly City Food Co-op is on its way to giving everyone in the Shenandoah Valley a chance to support sustainability at all levels. As the website explains, “The guiding principles are equality among owners, the enrichment of the community, and the support of local sustainable products.”1

Interestingly enough, the Co-op got its start after The Little Grill Collective, a local employee-owned restaurant and landmark, made a failed attempt at starting a natural foods/goods store in 2005. Alas, The Little Grill’s store never came to fruition, but after six months of trying the owners/staff contacted interested community members about the possibility of making the vision a reality.

Starting in 2006, 25 interested folks met repeatedly to discuss, plan, and gather resources to water that little seed so that it might sprout and grow. And, by the end of 2007, their work brought some impressive results: over $11,000 in raised capital, hiring of outside consultants (legal, business, marketing, etc.), and established the various boards and teams. All the while plans were taking shape and that vision of the Friendly City Food Co-op store kept growing clearer, firmer, and more realistic.

The Co-op’s many board members, owners, and volunteers have helped make 2008 an equally productive year. For example, they were awarded grants of $5000 from Coop5000 and $7500 from the Resource Conservation and Development Program, revised the business plan for the Co-op’s future viability, and continued searching for space in which to house the store…by the planned opening date of summer 2009.

What makes the Friendly City Food Co-op such a unique green venture? Obviously, as a co-op, its owners are all community members and have a very direct, very important relationship with its development and operations once it gets going. A co-op represents an unprecedented opportunity for democracy within the marketplace, also ensuring that profit and growth do not take precedence over a healthy community.

By focusing on local farmers, producers, artisans, and other entrepreneurs, the Co-op provides yet another means of both ensuring and improving the community’s strength. Owners and shoppers alike will be able to keep their money within this area, like life-blood pumping through the Valley’s veins, while purchasing healthful products for themselves. A win-win-win-win situation indeed: it is good for customers, producers, the local community, and the planet.

But the Co-op has even more incentives for community members who take the extra step of actually becoming owners by purchasing a share. Once the storefront actually opens, owners will get discounts when they shop, plus they will be able to take part in the Co-op’s governance. Of course, these little perks are only icing on the cake; by funding the Co-op now, so that it may become a reality, owners also support the “rebirth” of Harrisonburg itself into a more viable, friendly place to live.

Like “The Friendly City” itself, though, the Co-op will be open to everyone, investor/owner or not. The point is not acquiring funds, making profit, or establishing some sort of elitist “green clique.” No, the Co-op’s aims are to achieve a sustainable community, to open up green living and conscientious consumerism to everyone.

The Friendly City Food Co-op is not alone in America or in the world. Co-ops of various sorts have a long tradition as an option to typical capitalism–you know, big box stores, supercenters, and franchises all funneling money into the coffers of some mega-multi-national corporation whose headquarters seem to be on another planet. Ironically, co-ops lie at the foundation of capitalism: long, long ago, shopping virtually had to be local, at small markets where vendors brought their wares in order to make a living.

What makes the Friendly City Food Co-op particularly special, though, is that it is happening in this little city of Harrisonburg, nestled in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, running up the spine of the Old Dominion. It might seem odd at first glance, if you think of Virginia as a fairly conservative place and this area as mostly rural with old-school values. Whether out of ignorance, greed, convenience, or habit, many farmers here still practice highly unsustainable farming, relying on chemicals, pillaging the land to milk it for all it is worth. The same goes for manufacturers and other businesses as well.

The Friendly City Food Co-op, then, proves that these green, collective efforts can thrive just about anywhere. It also serves as a model for other individuals who want to make their home place, and the world, a better place.

Thanks to the Friendly City Food Co-op and eco-minded, community-focused ventures like it across the globe, forces of preservation are counteracting those of destruction. As a result, we Earthlings can count on the life-blood of where we live pumping, pumping for many years to come.

And sometimes we can even play a direct part in this cooperative effort for sustainability…for survival.

1. “FAQs.” FriendlyCityFoodCoop.com.. The Friendly City Food Co-op. 2007. 10 December 2008 <http://www.friendlycityfoodcoop.com/faqs.shtml>.

  1. Robin Shreeves

    This is great Justin. You know, everyone right now is looking to President-elect Obama and his Green Dream Team to fix things, but I believe that the majority of sustainable work needs to be done on a local level. Start with yourself and then work within your community and local governments.

    Yes, the national government has responsibilities in this area. But it’s efforts like this that will make immediate differences and get people involved so when the national government does do something, more people are likely to support it. And, if the national government gets tied up in politics as usual, things will still get done.

  2. Justin Van Kleeck

    Robin and Jeff, you both have some really insightful things to say on this very broad topic. In terms of the new administration (and government in general), there truly needs to be much more, much more substantial support of grassroots community-building ventures such as co-ops. And when those community efforts also help the environment, how much more ideal can you get?

    “Trickle-down” benefits are not worth hoping for a lot of times, such as with the FCFC as it struggles simply to get the capital to start up something. If the top (federal government) did more to help the bottom (grassroots), then we could make some serious headway towards healing society’s wounds and making the entire body strong.

  3. Bobby B.

    The top (federal government) cannot help the bottom (grassroots) without first confiscating the wealth of others. If the top could create wealth, printing money would not lead to inflation.

  4. Justin Van Kleeck

    True, Bobby. But getting rid of taxes is a LONG ways away, perhaps eternally so. More realistic is finding truly beneficial, productive ways to USE those funds confiscated (largely from the bottom, it seems). I have no problem having my tax dollars used, if they must be taken and used, for things like grassroots enrichment programs; warmongering and money brokering are not where I want my money going.

    On that note, and for that reason, I think it would be great if citizens were given SOME ability to determine how their tax dollars were used–at least by saying where they SHOULD NOT go. I actually once called the IRS to see if I could find out how tax dollars were apportioned, and the helpful representative simply laughed at me. So much for Customer Service. ^_^

  5. Bobby B.

    I would disagree that the funds are confiscated largely from the bottom. All reports indicate that the lowest 50% of wage earners pay no income taxes whatsoever. Many of those even receive some sort of “reverse” tax in the form of the AMT and are eligible for programs such as food stamps, welfare, school lunch programs (which now include breakfast), and ChIP health care programs. The top 5% of wage earners pay something like 90% of the income taxes, and the remaining 45% (i.e. we in the middle class) cover the rest. I cannot locate the article at this time, but I read somewhere that the United States ranks second or third in the world in this type of wealth redistribution. Of course, current programs for the poor may or may not be sustainable in the green sense, but most in need worry about satisfying the need before considering the environmental consequences.

    As far as learning where your specific tax dollars are spent, the IRS is only responsible for collecting them. You’d have to interrogate 535 members of congress, countless bureaucrats, dozens of cabinet members, and 1 president to determine where your money was spent. Good luck with that one…

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