With millions of acres of farmland throughout South Carolina and vast resources for local produce and livestock in the Lowcountry, a movement is building that hopes to demonstrate to local residents that it is high-time for a food cooperative in Charleston.
Just a little over two weeks after the announcement that Earth Fare would shutter all of its stores, a plan to convert the West Ashley location into a co-op gained steam among some in Charleston.
“Operation Cooperation,” led by local lawyers and activists Renee Orth and Taylor Gillespie, said that adapting the Folly Road grocery store into a food cooperative, a consumer-owned business managed by those who use it, would put more local food on shelves.
“From the customer’s perspective, it wouldn’t be necessarily dramatically different from shopping at Earth Fare,” Orth says. “Most cooperative grocery stores these days function like a full-service grocery store that has a focus on more local produce, local ingredients, and has a bid toward health food.”
Orth says that the co-op could include a food hall, a bakery, a coffee roaster, and a butcher. “[It would] create an environment where local artisans can show off their talents and give our customers and our customer owners a central place to get the best of what Charleston has to offer.”
Gillespie says the hopeful co-op will operate as a “hybrid-type” organization. “You have worker owners and member owners,” he says. “It will be run essentially in the same way that any company or corporation is run. You’ll have a board of directors. That board will be voted in by the members and they will make the operation decisions, transactional decisions. But, if any proposition comes up that will affect the members — worker owners or member owners — that will be put to a democratic vote to all members.”
Currently, the group does not have a starting number to bid on, which has proven to be one of the biggest challenges to get past. The deadline to bid for the property, according to Orth, will be March 16. The property’s rent and common area maintenance total a little over $40,000 per month.
To bid, Orth says the group will need to find several “heroic buyers” who can purchase the property and hold the assets while the co-op is forming. “It’s a big ask,” she says. “There are definitely potential options if that doesn’t happen.” There is currently no estimated amount for the bid.
“This thing’s been sort of a moving target,” says Gillespie. “Once we have a number, that’s going to allow us to move with the appropriate determination to try to take over that space, if it does appear that it’s going to be feasible.”
The idea has “sparked a lot of enthusiasm” for a food co-op, Orth says. Both she and Gillespie add that, even if their bid for the Earth Fare space is unsuccessful, they will plan for another location.
“I think in terms of alternate locations, that will involve a lot of community input,” Orth says. “The upper peninsula has been on my radar for a while as being a potential location for a co-op. Other than the Food Lion on upper King, a lot of those areas are food desert areas.”
Food co-ops have had trouble sticking in South Carolina, despite a large agricultural industry in the state, including 25,000 farms encompassing 4.9 million acres of land, providing plenty of resources. Despite this, the co-op model is not completely foreign thanks to electricity co-ops bringing power to rural areas.
Gillespie says that a food co-op in the Lowcountry would be an opportunity to show the model at work, bringing exposure to many citizens. “It doesn’t make sense that we don’t have one and all it’s going to take is for us to do it,” he adds. “Once people, I think, see how it works, why it works, how they’re now connecting to something larger than themselves, how business can be cooperative and how it can also be competitive, I think it will have exponential effects on the ability of other co-ops to offshoot from this.”
Orth and Gillespie have drawn some inspiration from the Progressive Club, a historically significant co-op. Founded by Esau Jenkins and 40 families on Johns Island in 1948 to trade goods and services, the Progressive Club became a beacon of the civil rights movement as a place to educate local black men and women about voting.
“Cooperatives have historically proliferated where markets fail, which was why their heyday as a form of business organization was during the Great Depression and in the South during the time of segregation,” Gillespie says.
Orth believes that it’s “past time that Charleston was exposed to the cooperative model.”
“In general the co-op model is actually one that is very old,” she says. “As we see increasing wealth inequality in our country and division, and a lot of people struggling, despite the fact that a lot of our economic aggregate numbers are looking good, the cooperative model is an alternative.”