A certain word is coming up very frequently around here this week. It is "co-op". First, I bumped into my child's ballet instructor as the kids and I were walking the dog down our street a couple days ago. She was loading mounds of salad greens into the trunk of her car.
I must have looked at her kind of quizzically (there is definitely not a farmer's market on our block) because she explained to me that a woman in the apartment building next door runs a produce co-op. The members of the co-op pay monthly dues in exchange for organically-grown, fresh, seasonal produce. Good idea. Especially because getting fresh produce is easier said than done in my urban surroundings.
Next, I signed my kids up to participate in weekly enrichment classes offered to homeschool families. My older girls are participating in hand sewing and chess classes while my little one is learning to speak Spanish and create art. Each week, we meet in an old church building downtown.
It is a homeschooling co-op. The parents pay monthly dues and volunteer an hour of their time each week. In return, the children get to participate in classes taught by great instructors in the community. Another great idea. Especially because homeschooling means that your kids are at home every single day and sometimes both of you need a little break.
This got me thinking about the concept of a "co-op". Where did this idea come from anyway? First, I looked up the word in the dictionary. Merriam-Webster told me that "co-op" means "cooperative" and that "cooperative" means "prison, slammer, the big house". Wait. It's What?
So then, I went to the definitive source for all of the world's knowledge. Wikipedia, of course. Wikipedia defined "co-op" as a business organization owned and operated by a group of individuals for their mutual benefit.
And then just to be sure, I checked the Oxford Companion to British History. It said that a "cooperative" creates an alternative society based on mutual assistance rather than competitive individualism. That sounds more like it.
In essence, a "co-op" is an organization that looks out for the best interests of its members. Because it is operated by its members. That's why. So, just where did the idea for co-ops begin anyway?
It turns out that before the world became modernized, industrialized, and materialized people had been cooperating. After all of that modernization, though, we kind of forgot how to do it.
In the 18th century, a Brit named Robert Owens purchased an oatmeal mill. He tried to operate a business in which the employees were treated humanely and fairly and enjoyed a share of the company's profits. He failed.
Then, in 19th century England, a group of weavers got together (they cooperated) and set up a shop in which customers received dividends according to how much they purchased (kind of like a rewards program?). Thus, the co-op movement was born.
The idea has caught on from there and the Oxford Companion to British History goes on to say that after that, the movement spread rapidly, and it sought to supply unadulterated foodstuffs at accessible prices and make a distinctive virtue of refusing credit.
I am really starting to like this co-op idea. A group
of people. Cooperating. Getting exactly what they need. For a price that they can actually afford to pay. Sounds good to me!