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Berlin gauges interest in food cooperative

Special to the Union Leader

May 01. 2014 8:23PM
A crowd of about 60 people attended a meeting Wednesday night to discuss a proposed food cooperative in Berlin. (DEBRA THORNBLAD)

BERLIN — About 60 people attended an information meeting at the Berlin Women’s Rural Entrepreneurial Network office Wednesday night to discuss the possibility of starting a cooperative grocery store in Berlin.

The city has received a $12,000 Community Development Block Grant to study the issue, and the first part of that process is to gauge public interest, Berlin City Planner Pam Laflamme said.

“This area has food issues,” Laflamme said. “We don’t have a lot of food choices, other than the farmers’ market. People want more food choices, and they want it year-round.”

Laflamme said they would not be talking specifics that night, such as location, but more generally about whether there’s interest, which there seemed to be. Although some concern was expressed about whether the area could support it, no one expressed any opposition to the idea.

Attending the meeting was Mike Claflin, who helped start the Littleton Cooperative and Brian Labonte, manager of that store.

The Littleton Cooperative opened in 2009 and broke even in its third year, Claflin said. By its fourth year it was making a small profit, and in a few years they expect to be able to pay dividends to members. Concord is also home to a cooperative grocery, and a group in Manchester has been seeking members to establish one.

The Littleton store was patterned on the Hanover food cooperative, which now has four stores, makes $750 million per year and has 450 employees. It is the oldest and largest in the state. On Wednesday evening, the group’s membership approved a $5.3 million renovation and expansion of the Hanover Co-op. Littleton with 4,200 members is now the second largest in the state, Claflin said.

The impetus to start the Littleton cooperative came after a story appeared in a local paper about what happened to food prices with a particular chain when there was no competition. It was discovered prices were a lot higher.

Claflin and others got together with people from Hanover, who suggested a public meeting to gauge interest. More than 400 people showed up.

“The biggest challenge was that people didn’t understand what a cooperative was, what power a community can have with its own store, he said. “A cooperative is owned by its members. It’s a hard concept for people to understand, but it really and truly is how it works.”

It took two years from the time of conception to get the store open.

After the public meeting the next step was to get a few people together and form a board of directors, which then commissioned a feasibility study.

In Berlin, the feasibility study will be paid for with the grant money that the city has acquired. It will look at demographics, what kind of food people want and how much families spend on food.

There are different kinds of cooperatives, Claflin said. Hanover is a hybrid, about 50 percent organic and the rest regular food. That’s the model Littleton followed, but Berlin could decide on something different.

Some cooperatives depend on volunteers, but both Hanover and Littleton have paid employees. At least 70 percent are full-time jobs with benefits, said.

After the feasibility study, the next step was raising the $7.5 million needed to make the project happen. They raised $500,000 from a Community Development Block Grant, then another $500,000 through loans, about 120 of them, from the community, some as small as $1,000. With $1 million in hand, they went to the bank to get the rest of the money needed. Those community loans will be paid off by the end next year, Claflin said.

The cooperative can’t compete with Walmart and other chains, Labonte said. With produce and meat, the cooperative’s prices were generally higher, but the product was of much higher quality. he said. With dry goods they were close to the other stores’ prices, he said.

Although anyone can shop at a cooperative, there are special benefits for members. Members join by buying stock at $25 per share, which is a one-time fee.

It takes four shares to be able to vote.

There are special events where there are discounts for members, a day each week for discounts for seniors and the cooperative does accept food stamps.

Laflamme said a representative from NH Listens, a civic engagement initiative of the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, would be putting together a report of the meeting after which the feasibility study would begin.

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