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Jon Steinman: The Magic of Food Co-ops

Jon Steinman, producer and host of the internationally syndicated TV/web series, radio show and podcast “Deconstructing Dinner: Reconstructing Our Food System,” shares how consumer-owned cooperative grocery stores, or food co-ops, are changing the retail grocery landscape – and communities – for the better.

Tune in to hear about:

  • Jon’s personal interest in food, the food system and eating well.
  • The way consumer-owned grocery stores (aka food cooperatives) are being used to alleviate food deserts with fresh, local and natural items, not just to serve already-affluent communities.
  • Why co-ops are a huge benefit to communities.
  • A newer model of co-op ownership that allows for both consumer and employee investment and ownership rather than just one or the other.

Jon is also the author of Grocery Story: The Promise of Food Co-ops in the Age of Grocery Giants, which will be available in spring 2019. We hope you’ll check it out when it’s available.

Listen in at the link below, on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts.

 Jon Steinman: producer and host of Deconstructing Dinner radio show and podcast

Rootstock Radio Interview with Jon Steinman

Air Date: January 7, 2019

Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.

THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Jon Steinman, producer and host of the internationally syndicated radio show and podcast Deconstructing Dinner: Reconstructing Our Food System, as well as author of a book to be released this spring called Grocery Story: The Promise of Food Co-ops in the Age of Grocery Giants. Welcome, Jon.

JON STEINMAN: Thank you so much for having me. Wonderful to be here.

TM: I know that Deconstructing Dinner was once ranked as the most listened-to food podcast in Canada. And right now I know you’re in British Colombia. And I just love the title, Deconstructing Dinner. Can you tell us a little bit about it? And how did you come up with that title?

JS: Well, you know, I should first say that, at this point, the Deconstructing Dinner radio show and podcast is much more of an archive than it is anything of an active podcast. I stopped producing shows back in 2010, but for about five years I put together almost 200 one-hour episodes that began here at our cooperative radio station here at Nelson, B.C., back in 2006.

And the name, it really was a brainstorm between my partner at the time and myself. And we wanted to just to do something fun with the word dinner. And we just went through the list of what words seemed to roll into dinner in a way that speaks to what the show was all about, and it worked out. And really, what it was about was taking apart the pieces of our food system so that we can actually see how our food system is comprised. And when we see all the parts, we can pick and choose how we want to put it back together. So that was really the subtitle to the series, which emerged when the radio show turned into a television series. It became Deconstructing Dinner: Reconstructing Our Food System.

TM: At the time, why did you think it was important that we should deconstruct dinner? Or the idea—pull our dinner apart and really look at it.

JS: Yeah, and it was at a time when there wasn’t much, if any, real focused media that was looking at that subject. And in a way, it emerged out of my own personal experience. I spent four years at the University of Guelph in Ontario studying hotel and restaurant management. And throughout those four years, I was being sort of led in a direction that was much more towards the dominate food system, particularly when it came to ordering food. So when I left university and I started working in the industry—I worked in quite a few different restaurants and hotels—I really started to see that there was this gap between the way in which food service operated, the way in which retailers operated, and where the food was coming from.

And the personal side of it for me, too, was also in my kitchen. So I, through my four years at university, felt a calling to spend a lot more time in the kitchen than I certainly was when I first got to university. I kind of went from sticking something in a microwave to wanting to actually go and buy fresh ingredients from a farmers’ market or a farm stand. And as I started to evolve into that way of connecting with my food, I started to notice how difficult it was to access those foods easily, particularly walking into a grocery store and being able to find these fresh, local ingredients.

And so, Deconstructing Dinner emerged out of this own personal interest to explore the question of why. Why is it, here I am, wanting to eat really good, local, healthy, fresh food, and it’s so difficult to find? And that’s really how the journey began.

TM: Well, Jon, I can see that you have a lot of fun. And this book that you’re working on now, Grocery Story, is just a very fascinating book about…well, this chapter in particular: “Co-ops as Food Desert Remediation.” In this chapter you talk a lot about a lot of very exciting different co-ops that you have been studying, and about food deserts. Quite a few of them are in the United States. Maybe you could talk a little bit about, what is a food desert? And what made you get interested in this idea of food desert remediation?

JS: Yeah, well it’s a good question, because when I first started to explore writing this book—Grocery Story: The Promise of Food Co-ops in the Age of Grocery Giants—I was coming at it much more from an angle of the role of food co-ops in supporting local food producers, particularly food producers who are growing natural and organic foods. Because that tends to be how many food co-ops operate, is they’re operating as natural and organic food stores. And this has been sort of culture of food co-ops that we’ve had for quite a few decades now.

And as I dug deeper into the research, I started to learn that there was a new, I guess you could say, demographic and a new type of community that was becoming interested, not necessarily in food co-ops as they have been, but interested in the model of what a food co-op is and what it might be able to do to serve their interests. And so these were people in communities who not only didn’t have access to good food, but they didn’t have access to any food.

So there are places all over the United States, as well as Canada here, that don’t have easy access to a grocery store. So that isn’t necessarily defined as a food desert. A food desert has become a really important term that is used to specifically define an area of low income, low access to food. So this is not just any food. So this isn’t having access to a convenient store or a fast food restaurant. This is about having access to a full-service grocery store. And so there is a sort of commonly understood and accepted definition, which is that a food desert is basically anywhere in an urban setting where people are more than one mile from a supermarket or a large grocery store, but specifically in areas that have a certain percentage of low-income residents.

So there are many places in the United States and in Canada where this is very little easy access to a grocery store. But if it’s in an area of middle to even upper income, it’s not that much of a detriment to being able to access food, because most people have vehicles. Whereas once you start looking at some of these areas that are of lower income, you start to see that access to vehicles becomes less common.

So one example that is used in the book is this community in Greensboro, North Carolina. And there, in this one region, about 17.5 percent of the households in this area are without access to an automobile. So when they lost their grocery store in 1998—because the one store operating in their community left—all of a sudden, for those people without access to an automobile, they were required to take at least a one-and-a-half-hour round trip by bus in order to access their neighborhood grocery store—which, of course, isn’t really in their neighborhood at all.

And so this is where this possibility of a consumer-owned grocery store—a food co-op—really becomes of interest. And so that community—I use that as an example, because in the city of Greensboro, in this one neighborhood, they did mobilize and eventually were able to successfully open up a community-owned grocery and have been operating since 2016 in that community.

So this became an entire chapter in the book unexpectedly, because before I started writing the book I had no idea that there was this possibility and this potential for the food co-op model to be used in this way, where it’s not about getting natural and organic foods on the shelves—it’s really about creating a grocery store in an area that doesn’t have one.

TM: So that, the Greensboro, the folks who started the co-op, they had already formed a group of some sort, hadn’t they? They were fighting a landfill. So that they were already kind of organized when the opportunity for the Greensboro co-op came. Did I get that one wrong?

JS: No, you’re right. That’s exactly what happened. There was a group of people that had already been organized in that particular neighborhood. So at this point, from what I recall, the grocery store that they had been relying on wasn’t there anymore. They had been trying to attract another chain to come into the area, and nobody wanted to go in there. And it just so happened that they also had been organizing some resistance to, from what I recall now, a landfill in the area.

And what I’ve noticed, through a lot of the research I’ve done now on how food co-ops form, is it really does tend to be a… A good check on the checklist of what’s going to make a co-op successful is if you’re already a well-organized group. And so there’s quite a few food co-ops that have emerged of already existing organizations that may be focused on increasing access to good food, increasing access to food for people with low incomes. In some cases, I’ve seen food co-ops emerge out of economic development initiatives. There’s even stories of food co-ops emerging out of courses at universities over time.

So certainly, that is probably one of the precursors to a successful food co-op, is having a really well-organized group of committed people. And I think what made Renaissance Food Co-op in Greensboro successful and opening, has been that—has been there were already a well-organized group of people.

And actually that, the co-op’s been open for a couple years and it hasn’t necessarily been that the co-op is in a position to say, “We’re through the weeds here.” They’re only in there two years under their belt. And from what I’ve been hearing, things are challenging. They haven’t been selling as much as they anticipated. But it sounds like it’s all hands on deck. And there’s so much riding on the importance of what they’ve done because so many other communities are trying to look to them as a model that there’s a lot of support going into ensuring that that food co-op is successful.

TM: Well, certainly one of the things that Greensboro, and some of the other cooperatives you talk about in the “Food Desert” section of the book, probably struggled to get money to get it going. And in this one, it was kind of interesting that they actually did some crowd funding, as well as 600 people gave $16,000.

JS: Yeah, you know, the way in which food co-ops form in their communities, as far as trying to fund them and finance them, is quite unique. And so, in the book I do share quite a few examples of how different types of co-ops—whether it’s a co-op like this one in Greensboro or other co-ops in more middle- to upper-income areas—there’s all these different models to raise funds. And the Renaissance Co-op in Greensboro, for example, was able to secure a grant from the City of Greensboro. They were able to secure some grants and gifts from some local churches. But that one piece you mentioned there about members loaning money, I think that’s a really important part that really separates a consumer-owned grocery store from a chain grocer.

So I can speak about our co-op here that I was a part of—I was on the Board of Directors of our co-op for 10 years in Nelson—and we recently moved into a new store as well. And in order to fund the cost of building that new store, we reached out to our member owners and asked them to loan us upwards of $1.8 million. And we were able to secure—actually we asked for $1.5 million and we ended up with $1.8 million from about 173 member owners lending anywhere between, I believe it was, $1,000 upwards to $200,000, one of our highest loans.

And it’s a really innovative model where not only you’re giving the opportunity for people in a community to invest locally into something that means something to them, rather than sending their money outside of the economy, outside of the community, into potentially some sort of fund that it’s not even certain where the money is going. Here’s a way for people in a community to invest in something that’s important. And it’s a great thing for a co-op because it’s much easier access to those funds. And people who are investing are also getting a bit of a return on that, on par with any other investment.

And so it’s not uncommon to hear of a new food co-op being able to raise anywhere from half a million up to one and half, even approaching two million lately, in funds to either renovate a store or build a new store.

Grocery Story

TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Jon Steinman, producer and host of Deconstructing Dinner and author of Grocery Story: The Promise of Food Co-ops in the Age of Grocery Giants.

The other co-op model in this one chapter about food deserts that I found very fascinating is the co-ops that have been developed in Cincinnati, Ohio. And that is Kroger territory, and I think Kroger might be the largest grocer in the United States right now, maybe next to Walmart? They’re huge, aren’t they?

JS: What I’ve understood from, I guess, the rankings of size in grocery store land is that Kroger is the largest traditional-format grocery store. Walmart supersedes Kroger in food sales, but Walmart, of course, is much more than just a grocery store. And Kroger, to some extent, many of their stores are also growing into more of that type of format. But, by and large, Kroger has maintained much more of a traditional grocery store format. So Kroger is the largest and has been around since right around the turn of the last century. So they’ve been around for almost 120 years.

TM: Wow!

JS: And so I do tell that story—the history of not only Kroger, but even previous to that was the rise and growth of A & P, which became the largest grocer in the world and also largest retailer in the world at one point. So, yeah, A & P started off in New York City, and at one point, in 1929, had 16,000 stores across the country.

TM: Wow. Well, A & P is the grocery store of my childhood.

JS: It is for a lot of people, yeah—even for me, here in Canada.

TM: So, Cincinnati is also the home of Kroger. So it’s kind of chilling to think that where their home base is, there’s a food desert.

JS: Well, and I imagine there’s more than one. I mentioned at least about one of them in Cincinnati. And Kroger—at least according to Kroger—they maintain about 60 percent of the market in Cincinnati. So this was a statistic that I share in the book, because I believe it might be the highest market concentration of any grocery store or any grocer in an urban center in the United States. So 60 percent of all grocery sales in the city end up in the pockets of Kroger.

And so it’s an interesting place to kind of focus some attention on because in a highly concentrated market, no matter where it is, it becomes a lot harder for smaller entrance into a market. The barriers to entry are usually a lot higher because there’s this capacity among the large grocer to be able to drive prices down and cushion themselves because of not only how large they are, but how many stores and how much penetration they have in the marketplace.

So the possibility of a food co-op entering into this stronghold of Kroger is a really inspiring story if, sure enough, one can be successful. And so I do share that story in the book, particularly around Cincinnati, of two co-ops, one which is already open: the Clifton Market, which is a co-op that opened in a previous location of an IGA. So it wouldn’t have been classified as a food desert because, from what I understand, that particular area isn’t predominately low-income like you would need to define a food desert by. But it certainly was a community that had zero access to a grocery store in any walkable or close distance.

And so a group of people in that community had an incredible campaign to get people interested in the idea of owning their own grocery store. They had stuck lawn signs all over the community; they would host parties once a week, it sounded like, at people’s houses to kind of educate people and talk about the possibility of a food co-op. And in a relatively short period of time, they were able to secure the space and move in. And it’s been operating now, I believe, for a couple of years—2017 it opened with 81 new jobs.

And then there’s another effort happening in Cincinnati called the Apple Street Market, and that’s in the Northside neighborhood of Cincinnati. And same thing there: an existing grocer decided to leave quite abruptly. It was a discount chain of food stores, Save-A-Lot. And here’s a chain that was operating out of Missouri, very little connection to the well-being of this community and of this neighborhood. So pulling out of a community and leaving them without access to a food store wasn’t something that really seemed to concern them, because that’s not really the business that they’re in.

And so a group of people got together there and have now since formed a co-op, Apple Street Market. I’m pretty sure, just in this past week, they finally secured owning the space through a local nonprofit. And their trajectory right now is to open a food co-op probably in early 2020. So they’re well on track, and another inspiring story that I share in the book.

And what’s unique about Apple Street Market is, rather than be a grocery store that is just going to replace what was already there in having discount conventional foods, there’ll actually be a blend of natural and organic foods, local foods, and conventional foods, all there to serve what is quite a diverse neighborhood from what I’ve heard—a neighborhood of low-income residents, young residents with more in the middle-income bracket. And in this case, it’s a grocery store that’s going to serve all of those demographics.

And so it’s another important story because it is a unique model of a new type of food co-op that’s emerging, and one that I’m keeping close watch on and hoping is going to succeed. And I hope others see the excitement as I do.

TM: That is very exciting. And I see that you’re calling it, that it’s going to be a hybrid. It’s starting out as both a worker and a consumer co-op. And do you see that as a real model for the future, for the twenty-first century?

JS: I do. And it’s good to bring that up, because Apple Street is also unique in that they are not just a consumer co-op, which is a co-op that’s only owned by its customers, by the consumers. In this case it’s a hybrid, as you say, of consumer owners and worker owners, so employees in the store having the option to be an owner of the store.

So it’s not a new model. It’s certainly… There’s, I would, off the top of my head, guess at least about a dozen if not 15, upwards to 20, existing food co-ops that do operate with this hybrid model, which is quite rare. So there are about 230 food co-ops, consumer co-ops in the United States. So it doesn’t make up a predominate percentage of the food co-op community. But I think it’s a model that is worth paying more and more attention to.

I mean, for one thing, there are quite a few worker co-op grocery stores out there that are very successful. So there is a lot of evidence out there to demonstrate that a worker-owned grocery store can also succeed just as a consumer co-op can. And I guess the benefit of really combining the two is the workers who are in there, day-in, day-out, have so much riding on the future of their grocery store that having that extra voice of being an owner seems to not only be really important to the sort of democratic underpinning of a co-op, regardless of what kind of co-op it is, but I think it would add that much more passion and appreciation to their job if they also understood themselves to be a worker-owner. And not just a consumer-owner, which many staff at co-ops are. They’re also member-owners of their store, but just as a consumer, not necessarily as a worker.

And so a worker-owner will have much more say in the future of their co-op, as well as share in more of the, often, the return, the profit of that co-op. So it’s an incentive, really, for significantly more engaged participation in your place of employment. And I think it’s a really promising model, and another reason why a startup like Apple Street, I think, should get a lot of attention because of what they’re trying to do with that model.

But like I say, there are some co-ops out there, well-established co-ops like Weaver Street Market in North Carolina that has been operating in that model, with that model for many years.

TM: You know, you start this chapter out saying, “Water, food, shelter.” You know, those of us who have been in the co-op movement say maybe those things shouldn’t be entirely in the hands of the private sector. Maybe they shouldn’t be just all about how much profit someone can make from them, especially in the food world.

So this Apple Street Market cooperative, where we see this idea of worker-ownership as well as consumer co-ops, and then also very, very creative financing, mostly going to be funded by shares of, what, a $100 a share? What about those folks who can’t afford $100 a share?

JS: Right. Well yeah, you’re probably speaking to the initiative by another local nonprofit there in Cincinnati, Churches Active in Northside. So this is a group there that has stepped in to make sure that people can afford to become a member of a co-op. So that’s one—I wouldn’t call it a barrier, but it’s certainly something that might keep someone from thinking that they want to be a part of a food co-op, because there is a bit of an upfront cost. And it’s not a cost in the sense that it’s money you’ll never see again—it’s an investment. It’s an equity investment that you’ll be able to take out of the co-op if you ever leave.

So most co-ops will charge anywhere from $50 to maybe a couple hundred at the very high end to become a member owner of the co-op, and that’s your share in the business. So you know, I think Apple Street, for example, I think their shares are $100, so to become a member you need to put up that $100. Some co-ops will actually spread out how much you spend per month, to make it a little more accessible.

But what this group in Cincinnati has been able to do is said, “You know, we’re going to subsidize that $100 share with $90,” and requiring basically that new co-op owner to only put up $10, and the $90 is going to be covered through fundraising efforts by that nonprofit organization, Churches Active in Northside.

So again, this is something that I hadn’t come across in any of my research, as far as these innovative ways to make becoming a member of the food co-op more accessible. So that’s a story I share in the book and certainly one I hope can spread. And that’s really part of the intention of sharing a lot of these stories, is that all these individual co-op efforts of existing co-ops and startup co-ops, everyone seems to learn from each other, learn from the co-op community, and then come up with something unique to figure out their own local circumstances. And then that, too, becomes a new standard that gets used everywhere.

So that’s part of the idea of the book, is, in a way, to gather the “greatest hits” of food co-ops all over the U.S., and from decades past up until present day, and to share the greatest hits of how food co-ops impact their communities through increased access to healthy food, through the way in which they inject that much more money into their local economies, the amount that they’re able to support their workforce versus, say, a conventional store. All of these stories are shared in the book as a way to inspire more growth in the food co-op community.

TM: Well, Jon, thank you so much for this book and for all the inspiration and creative work that you’ve done with the radio, with the television series—very exciting work. And thank you for your time today. It’s been really fun to listen to your stories and to your ability to make this new co-op movement come alive by showing us just how exciting and creative these new co-ops are.

JS: Oh, my pleasure! And it was fun learning about everything happening in the United States when it comes to food co-ops, certainly a lot more ahead of the curve than Canadians are when it comes to our grocery stores. So, in a way, I was hoping to really just gather as much as I could from the U.S. so that I could also inspire some growth of the food co-op community here in Canada, because our co-op here in Nelson is a little bit alone. We’re kind of on our own here with just maybe another dozen or so in the country that are like us. And so, looking south of the border to the U.S. and seeing all the amazing work that’s happening there is, it’s a co-inspiring process, for sure.

TM: Wonderful. And we’re really looking forward to your book, Grocery Story: The Promise of Food Co-ops in the Age of Grocery Giants.

JS: Thank you, Theresa. Thanks for having me.

TM: Bye-bye!

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