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Andro Valley looks at feasibility of setting up a food co-op



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WREN executive director Marilinne Cooper, right, spoke at the pulpit on Wednesday night at 921 Main Street to explain to some 90 people interested in learning about the potential for starting a food co-op in the City of Berlin why and how the Bethlehem-based nonprofit set up a City-based satellite to help empower those who live in the Valley. Laura Jamison, left, Manager of WREN Community Development in Berlin, Mike Claflin, AHEAD Inc.'s executive director who played a key role in setting up the Littleton Food Co-op, Brian Labonte of Whitefield who works full-time at the Littleton Co-op, and Sally Manikian of Shelburne, who participates in a Randolph-based food buyers group shared their expertise as did City Development Director Pam Laflamme of Gorham, not pictured, who described how the $12,000 feasibility study grant from the N. H. Community Development Finance Authority will be used. Photo by Edith Tucker. (click for larger version)
May 07, 2014
BERLIN — An open two-hour-long public community discussion was held on Wednesday night in WREN space in the former church building at 921 Main Street to discuss the possibility of a City-based Coös Co-op in Berlin.

Keynote speaker Mike Claflin, AHEAD's executive director, discussed how those interested in starting a food co-op in Littleton had concluded that the Hanover Co-op would serve as their general model, but had created a hybrid to serve a population in an essentially blue-collar town where both price and quality matters.

Claflin pointed out that he is very familiar with the City's hard financial times because AHEAD is transforming the former Notre Dame High School into affordable housing for frail elderly and also operates the Northern Lights Housing complex.

The impetus to look into setting up a food co-op in Littleton came when then-editor Rebecca Brown of the Littleton Courier, now a Democratic state rep from Sugar Hill, took the initiative and assigned reporters, who were also helped by volunteers, look into ithe prices at the Shaw's Supermarket, located on the Meadows. Their investigations revealed that at that time there was a startlingly large price difference between the local Shaw's and the chain's supermarkets located where there was competition.

When Co-op president Jeffrey Wheeler and vice president Claflin called on informational meeting in early 2006, it drew more than 300 people from both sides of the Connecticut River.

The brand-new custom-built 13,500 square-foot Littleton Food Co-op store opened in May, 2009, and it now has 4,200 members, making it second only in the state to the Hanover Co-op that operates four stores.

The Co-op exists to serve its members, not to make corporate profits, Claflin explained. Member-owners help govern the Co-op by electing its Board of Directors annually and actively support its principles by supporting local growers and producers within a 100-mile radius, encouraging healthy life choices, promoting environmental sustainability, and to as great an extent possible employ full-time workers who earn a living wage and receive good benefits.

Unlike most commercial supermarkets, 70 to 80 percent of Co-op employees are work full-time, which is the reverse of the typical supermarket. This translates into a pleasant atmosphere and good service, Claflin said.

The seven-member Board of Directors that got the Co-op off the ground represented unique skill sets, including financial, legal, accounting expertise, plus an in-depth knowledge of supermarkets, he explained.

To be successful in communities like Littleton and Berlin, a co-op food store must be economically viable and managed as a regular business that is making a profit, Claflin said. "It's a business that is owned, directed, and controlled by the community, and must be able to replace equipment, pay its bills and meet payroll."

The original Littleton Board also commissioned a feasibility study to provide the detailed data needed to secure bank financing. That study concluded that it would cost $7.5 million, of which the board would have to raise $1 million in equity. Half of the needed dollars came from a economic development Community Development Block Grant and the other $500,000 was invested by 120 people able to lay out at least $1,000, which is now being paid back with interest over a three-year period. Financial institutions loaned the balance.

It only costs $25 to buy a share and become a member but it takes four shares — $100 — to become a voting member.

As predicted, the co-op lost about $750,000 in its first year; broke even in the third year, and last year generated some $250,000 in profits on sales of $8.5 million.

Cooper pointed out that for a co-op to be successful in Berlin it would have to appeal to all segments of the population across a range of backgrounds and family size. The Littleton Co-op accepts food stamps, now called SNAP. Some low-income buyers only stop in for a few items.

Claflin pointed out that the number of items in a typical shopper's cart has grown larger since the Co-op opened and that the store remains "price sensitive" by carrying lower priced items, often only in limited quantities. Fresh produce and meat and fish that has never been frozen are particularly popular, he said.

Delicious food samples from some Local Works Berlin Farmers' Market vendors, including the Polish Princes, Debbieland Bakery, Middle Intervale Farm, Good Vibes Coffee, Bake Shoppe at Morningstar Acres and Libby's Bistro-SAaLT Pub, were enjoyed before the informal panel discussion began along with a lot of networking and conversation.

Asked what she thought about what she had learned that evening from the panelists, Ann Kitson of Berlin, who works full-time at AVH, replied that she is very encouraged that a food co-op is being considered and that those taking the lead seem to understand that a model must be fashioned that would be a good fit for the residents of this particular area.

Those not at the event can still participate in a survey at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/W85FVGN.

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