Back when I was a struggling freelance writer in my 20s, I moved into the Midwood area of Brooklyn where a budding new food coop had just opened a storefront. In those days, I was single and still emulating the lifestyle of my hard-drinking journalist friends. Amazingly, as I got involved in the 16th Street Food Coop, I found my new friends had me eating organic foods and drinking water and juices, not beer and tequila. That struggling little coop is now relocated as The Flatbush Food Coop on Cortelyou Road in Ditmas Park and has become a multi-million dollar enterprise. After years away pursuing my career on the west coast, I recently returned after the death of my husband and was reminded again of how much its values on community and organic living have shaped my life and this time helped me heal from the loss of my beloved partner. As I read about how Congress is taking a hard look at a medical coop in Seattle as a compromise model for a new healthcare system, I am not surprised. Coops are often mightiest in hard times.
The coop in the news is Group Health and its president Scott Armstrong told the New York Times “There’s a kind of accountability to the patients in our system. And when you bring the principles of a cooperative to bear, patients feel responsibility for holding the system together and for their own health.” I would add that the sense of responsibility he speaks about results from the fact that co-op members actually own an equal share of the business.
In fact, Paul Hazen, President and CEO of the National Cooperative Business Association wrote recently that it’s time to remember that cooperatives thrived in the great depression. Cooperative credit unions, for instance, founded back in the 30s, are remaining stable in this uncertain economy. Remember the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life?” It’s not just about the spirit of sharing during the holidays – the battle between the values of a small Savings & Loan (not a coop, but a family-run business) dedicated to its customers pitted against a runaway Bank culture (yes, there are great global banks) focused only on the bottom line, resonates in today’s economy.
Even if national healthcare eventually ends up as a government plan, I’m glad the spotlight right now is on cooperatives. We need to help each other get through today’s hard times and cooperatives offer us a way to get started on that journey!