We have seen growth in the big-name, big-money grocery chains here in Philadelphia – the massive Whole Foods reboot in Fairmount, the Mom's Organic Market in Center City, the brand-new Sprouts "farmers market"-style grocery on South Broad, and the forthcoming Heirloom Market from Giant about to open in Graduate Hospital.
According to a study released Nov. 12 by Hunger Free America, almost one in five Philadelphia residents is food insecure. This means they have limited or uncertain access to adequate food – often because they do not have the resources to travel to grocery stores and purchase enough food.
It's tempting to think all our new food options will make the city less food insecure. But we suspect that as long as most stores remain corporate-owned, profit-driven national chains, Philadelphians won't see real benefit.
The reality is none of the aforementioned grocers are opening in neighborhoods with the greatest food insecurity. None are based in Philadelphia – meaning they are taking much of their profits elsewhere – and they have extreme gaps in compensation between their executives and in-store employees. Sprouts, for instance, is based in Arizona. Their CEO took home $4.5 million in compensation in 2017. Whole Foods was bought by Amazon last year, a company recently valued at over a trillion dollars and of which Jeff Bezos owns 16 percent.
While we are encouraged by Giant's recent $1 million donation to Philabundance, a critical hunger relief organization in our region, this is a drop in the bucket for this international corporation. Giant is owned by Ahold Delhaize, a company based in the Netherlands that publicly reported paying its deputy CEO 135 times the average compensation of all its employees in 2017.
When we talk about food insecurity, let's not ignore that Ahold Delhaize placed third in 2017 among employers in Pennsylvania with the highest number of employees enrolled in SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) – behind only Walmart and McDonald's. Amazon placed fifth. Even as these companies publicly champion the value of fresh food through extensive marketing campaigns, they don't pay employees enough to fill their grocery baskets without public assistance.
Food co-ops – and cooperative businesses of all kinds – take a different approach, one rooted in community wealth and well-being. Most food co-ops are collectively owned and democratically governed by consumers in the neighborhood. These households – often called "member-owners" – can purchase a one-time equity share in their local co-op, which entitles them to vote for the board of directors, raise issues of concern to the member-ownership at large, and share in profits when the store is thriving. Equity shares are often subsidized for lower-income households. Through these practices, the control and benefit of food co-ops stay local and community-focused.
Here in Philadelphia, we have Weavers Way and Mariposa Food Co-op serving Mt. Airy/Chestnut Hill and West Philadelphia, with Kensington Community Food Co-op and South Philly Food Co-op opening within the next year in their respective neighborhoods. These stores not only live by cooperative principles, but they also play active roles in educating its memberships and communities about issues of equity.
In these times of tremendous income and wealth inequality, it is unsurprising that we are seeing a huge resurgence in the cooperative movement. From housing and consumer co-ops to worker co-ops and more, cooperative enterprises are a natural response to structural inequity, like huge pay gaps. They provide a tool for communities to take ownership over basic goods and services, rather than rely on gigantic corporations that are disconnected from shoppers' everyday lives. Cooperative enterprises start from a place of concern for community and then build a business model – rather than make an exorbitant amount of profit and then figure out how to attempt generosity.
We need more cooperative businesses, especially in industries providing basic needs, such as food. For those of us with the opportunity to choose where we food shop, we must take this privilege seriously and consider where our money is going.