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A co-op is any group of people who pool their resources to get what they need. Although most of us are familiar with natural foods, electric or farm cooperatives, a co-op can be any kind of business or service. When people want something that is not available in the marketplace, the cooperative principles framework can help them get what they want. Cooperation is a powerful tool that communities can use to create stable economies, meet local needs and even change the way business is done.
What makes a co-op unique is that it is owned by the membership. Regardless of how much equity a member contributes, each member has only one vote and equal say. Although a co-op needs to remain profitable to remain in business, the business also exists to serve the community, not solely to make a profit for its shareholders.
The Viroqua Food Cooperative is a consumer co-op. Customers become owners by purchasing shares in the co-op. They exercise their ownership primarily by electing their fellow members to the board of directors, which guides the general manager. The management and staff handle daily operations. The board and management report to the members on the state of the business at the annual meeting every October.
The natural food co-ops are an amazing co-op success story. In the 1970s thousands of people became interested in organic, natural, and unprocessed basic foods that were not readily available in grocery stores. Communities organized co-ops to get these products. They built connections with local producers and vendors and experimented with forms of management and membership structures.
Through their efforts over many years, we now have a thriving organic and natural foods industry that is providing a market for producers who want to use earth-friendly and sustainable farming methods. Urban and rural folk have developed new bonds while consumers around the globe have grown more aware of their power to transform society through the products they purchase every day.
It is important to remember that the value of being an owner member is in the use of services. In other words, there are businesses that you could invest in, never use and yet still make money on your investment. Shopping here makes the business profitable, supports local farmers and employs your neighbors.
Like all cooperatives, Viroqua Food Co-op operates under the following guiding principles. The seven international Cooperative Principles are as follows:
- Voluntary and Open membership
Cooperatives are voluntary organizations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political, or religious discrimination.
- Democratic Member Control
Cooperatives are democratic organizations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions. Men and women serving as elected representatives are accountable to the membership.
- Members’ Economic Participation
Members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of the cooperative. The economic benefits of a cooperative operation are returned to the members, reinvested in the co-op, or used to provide member services.
- Autonomy and Independence
Cooperatives are autonomous, self-help organizations controlled by their members. If they enter into agreements with other organizations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their cooperative autonomy.
- Education, Training and Information
Cooperatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their cooperatives. They inform the general public about the nature and benefits of cooperation.
- Cooperation among Cooperatives
Cooperatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the cooperative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.
- Concern for Community
While focusing on member needs, cooperatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members.