Working in a Co-operative Community

By Mark Svetz

    The other day Sarah and I went looking for a job and I found so much more. I found an economy that works the way I have always thought the world should. It's an economy where jobs arise out of the needs of the community, where people get to work at jobs that bring them pleasure and satisfaction. It is an economic community where we, in fact, try to make it work for everybody, not because it's profitable, but because we believe it's right.
    I am talking about the cooperative model for organizing a business, like a grocery store in this case. This recent example I want to tell you about showed me how cooperative groups can enjoy a degree of control and responsibility that the corporate model can never give us.

     Sarah and I have been cleaning the bathrooms as our working member/owner job at the Willimantic Food Co-op for the past few years. I really can't remember how long we've been doing it. It's a benefit of being part of the Food Co-op that we are able to work at one of the jobs that keep the place running and earn an additional discount on most of the groceries we buy. For almost a year I have been unable to work with Sarah on our job, making her burden that much greater. Last month, I saw an opportunity to relieve some of that burden.


    For several years we have been enjoying the rye bread baked and – until recently – delivered to Willimantic by Albert's Bakery in Deep River. It is good rye bread, firm and heavy in the New York style. Many people I know enjoy it, but most importantly for me, my granddaughter Miriam enjoys it.
    We visit the Co-op every Tuesday. I think of us as the three musketeers: Mima, Nonno and Miriam. We shop, have coffee with friends, play in the kids room. Inevitably, Miriam, who is not yet three years old, toddles over to the bread shelf and says, “I want to buy some rye bread.” When we say yes, Miri goes and grabs a loaf and brings it to Nereida at the cash register. They have a nice friendship, and Miri has learned that Mima must come over and pay for the bread. Sometimes we even take out a piece of bread, weigh it, then go to the peanut butter grinder and grind a small amount onto the slice of bread. Then Miriam takes it back to Nereida and we pay for the peanut butter.
    This is a wonderful routine for the three of us. I think Miriam is learning about commerce and, more importantly, she is learning about community. She is beginning to identify her community and learn the resources it has for her. We also have a lot of fun!
    Last month, during our weekly routine, one of the staff people told us to enjoy the bread because Albert's wasn't going to deliver to Willimantic any longer. Although Miriam was unaware of the change about to happen, Sarah and I were quickly in minor crisis mode, searching for solutions. Friends were bummed about the bread, we were going to miss it, and we knew Miri would miss out on an important part of her visits to the Food Co-op. There must be way to keep the rye bread coming to the Co-op!

Miriam loves to eat rye bread and peanut butter. Sarah Winter Photo.jpg

    Well, some years ago our friend Dave used to go to Meriden once a week to pick up ecologically grown apples from High Hill Orchards. I thought of that and wondered if we could get the bread as our working member job. Well, we talked to Saige and she thought it was a good idea. Saige is in charge of bread at the Co-op, and she went and talked to others. Eventually, after many phone calls, she worked it out that we could go Fridays to pick up the bread at Rein's Deli in Vernon. Albert's delivers bread daily to Rein's, and we would be able to pick up the Co-op's order there. We had to be there at six a.m., which is not difficult for us as we are usually up before five o'clock anyway.
    We set out a little before five a.m., and drove through Coventry and into Vernon, encountering only a few cars during the trip. We met the man who opens Rein's and he helped us load the bags of rye bread into our car. We got to the co-op a little after six a.m., dropped off the bread, gave the paperwork to Saige and we were home having breakfast before seven o'clock!
    Any day I can have a small adventure before sunrise is a good day for me, but what I really like about this job is that it arose out of my community. It has always troubled me that corporate decisions only concerned for the bottom line determine where me and my neighbors can find jobs. It's better than no jobs, of course, but I really want the dignity that comes from doing something my community has decided it needs and wants.

     The co-operative method of organizing offers us a way to have a business owned by the community it serves. Important decisions – like how to keep Miri's rye bread on the shelf! – can be made by the people directly involved. I get to serve my community in a way that suits me. Instead of feeling useless and uninvolved because I cannot swing a mop or scrub the toilets on my hands and knees any more, I am once again a fully contributing and appreciated member of my community.
    Did I mention that I love my Food Co-op? I love that my granddaughter gets to learn about life in the bosom of such a nurturing and welcoming community. Five o'clock is a bit early for our Miriam, but I do hope she gets to come with us sometime, just to see how her community brought to her the rye bread she loves!