A food co-op is a collectively owned grocery store. Most frequently, it focuses on making natural foods more affordable for co-op members, although other products may be carried as well. There are a number of different styles co-op, but all of them share common values of group management and decision making, social responsibility, and equality. Towns of all sizes have food co-ops ranging from very small to quite large.
In a private food co-op, only members may shop at the store. In order to become a member, someone pays a small initiation fee and usually invests a set amount of money in the organization to purchase a share. Some co-ops allow members to purchase multiple shares, or require an annual fee, which causes long term members to own more shares. In some cases, members also join work crews, contributing a few hours of work to the running of the co-op. The frequency and duration of work shifts varies from co-op to co-op.
In an open food co-op, anyone may shop at the store, but only members receive discounted prices. Anyone may join the co-op, often receiving benefits on the day that he or she joins. The prices for non-members this type of store can vary widely, but they are often lower than other retail stores in the area, to encourage people to shop at the co-op even if they cannot join.
Members of a food co-op are able to vote on issues which are relevant for the co-op. For example, members may decide that the store should stock only organic products. They may also have an influence on hiring decisions, remodeling, and other management issues. Because coordinating a big group of people can be challenging, this type of organization encourages cooperation, support, and honesty.
In many cases, a food co-op offers reduced fees to people of low income, or allows people to trade work for membership. The goal is to create a community grocery store with a cooperative ethic. The store offers low prices on goods because it tends to have lower overhead, since members work for free. A food co-op may also offer classes and community event space, along with a newsletter for members with information about the co-op and regional events.