In Ohio, the Co-op Dayton will bring a food co-op to help provide healthy food options in western and northwestern parts of Dayton. Lela Klein, Executive Director of Co-op Dayton, tells Food Tank why Dayton residents need the new food co-op, named Gem City Market, and how they will feed people in the city with unacceptably high level of food hardship.
“Our board president Amaha Sellassie always says that food is the canary in the coal mine. When you see lack of access to nutritious food, you’re going to see other impacts of poverty and lack of opportunity, as well,” Klein tells Food Tank about what poor access to food means in a community.
When the Food Research and Action Centre (FRAC) highlighted how Dayton is one of the 10 American cities with the highest level of hunger, Dayton residents gathered to find a solution. Klein first participated in the meetings as a labor union attorney and volunteer, and later she co-founded Co-op Dayton with other community members. While her primary role is a project manager, Klein also works to increase economic self-determination of the community by promoting employee ownership and local businesses responding to the needs of people in West and Northwest Dayton.
Co-op Dayton works to add healthy food choices to the foodscape in the city through Gem City Market, which will be a multi-stakeholder cooperative governed by its employees and customers. Currently, residents of West and Northwest Dayton travel to the suburbs to buy fresh and nutritious food items a few times a month. Due to physical inaccessibility, many find it easier to buy highly processed, less nutritious food available in their neighborhoods. Gas station mini-marts, dollar stores, corner stores, and fast-food stores are where they shop.
“When you picture a Dollar Store, you definitely don’t see a produce department,” Klein says to Food Tank. With the new local food co-op, people will be able to buy fresh and nutritious food more frequently and conveniently—at reasonable prices.
It is also a step towards a fairer community, Klein says. “We see this as an issue of racial justice as well as food justice.” While food accessibility is generally poor citywide, it is predominantly experienced by African Americans. Moreover, such food-related issues often coexist with other negative effects of poverty.
“In Dayton, 70 percent of African Americans live in areas of low or very low opportunity, while only 27 percent of white people live in areas of low and very low opportunity,” she explains. “We cannot have a healthy and thriving community with this level of maldistribution.” Of course, one food co-op will not remedy all injustices, as Klein says. “We see our work as one stop in the right direction, necessary but not sufficient.”
This is not the first-ever attempt to introduce a grocery store in the area. Several attempts by traditional grocers were unsuccessful since a major supermarket in West Dayton shut down about 10 years ago. Skepticism grew among many Dayton residents: “The biggest challenge so far was getting the community to believe that this could work,” Klein says to Food Tank.
Co-op Dayton commissioned a market study, conducted a survey of more than 1,200 residents, hired industry consultants, and partnered with a local business school. “When we ultimately finished our business plan and financial model and brought it to our key stakeholders, our diligence paid off and we won a lot of credibility,” Klein recalls. “We now have over 2,000 community member-owners, and have raised over US$3 million in capital. None of that would have been possible without laying the right groundwork.”
Co-op Dayton was inspired by the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation, a successful and resilient worker-owned business network in Basque, Spain, and will apply the union co-op model developed by Mondragon and the United Steelworkers. In addition to this model of democratic governance, Klein and her colleagues will consider using other core Mondragon principles such as open-book management, participation, wage solidarity, inter-cooperation, and continuous training and education. According to Klein, these cooperative principles can provide competitive advantages.
“As a cooperative, our fundamental purpose is to serve our members—the customers and employees—not shareholders or folks [in] a boardroom three states away,” Klein says to Food Tank. “Employee ownership and open-book management have been shown to lead to lower rates of waste, turnover, and employee theft, all significant cost savers in an industry with tight margins.”
Klein believes that creating a space where people can do more than buying food is essential for a successful food co-op. Gem City Market will serve as a community hub, accommodating a variety of common areas for community members and partners. Co-op Dayton is forming partnerships with a local hospital, entrepreneurs, and potentially a library. Community members will be able to participate in kitchen classes, SNAP-Ed programming, and wellness classes like yoga. They will also be able to hold neighborhood meetings. In a small clinic, a dietitian and nurse practitioner will offer customers advice on healthy diets. Co-op Dayton also hopes to set up a children’s corner where kids can read books on food and cooking.
When asked what the government can do to address issues faced by people in areas with poor access to healthy and nutritious food, Klein says, “for true systemic change, policymakers must incorporate racial, economic, and climate justice perspectives into policy decisions around food.”