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Owning Your Grocery Store: Community-Funded Food Co-op Opens in Portland

Tom Porter
The new Portland Food Co-op officially opens Wednesday.

PORTLAND, Maine - A new grocery store opened in Portland Wednesday morning. It's not another chain store, but instead a community-owned model that's seen growth in other parts of the state in recent years.  

"One of the things about a co-operative is it is truly a community-owned market," says Kevin Gadsby. Gadsby is manager of the Portland Food Co-op, which started out as a local food-buyers club and is now a full-service market with 20 employees focusing on locally-produced products.

It's also owned by the local community - or, more precisely, by the 2,300-plus members who each invested $100 in the co-op. That gives them a voice in the business's direction, as well as a cash rebate when the co-op makes surplus income.

Credit Tom Porter / MPBN
The Portland Food Co-op's shelves are lined with products, many of which are locally-produced.

Gadsby says members raised $860,000 towards the project's build-out - more than half the total cost. The co-op's membership, he says, has increased nearly six-fold in the last year, and the aim now is to have 3,500 members by this time next year. "We want to be the area's largest purveyor of local foods," Gadsby says.

He says the co-op does business with about 120 local food producers. One of them is Sarah Wiederkehr. She and her husband, run Winter Farm in Freeport, which specializes in dairy products.

"I'm especially excited about the dairy selection here and the cheese selection," Wiederkehr says. "I don't know many of you know this, but there are over 70 small-scale cheese makers in the state."

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan says that, apart from helping residents access healthy sustainable foods, the co-op is a good way to keep money in the local economy. "The ripple effect of this, not only in terms of the benefit to the consumer to be able to come here, but the impact it has on local farmers and the local economy, I think is going to be tremendous," Brennan says.

Credit Tom Porter / MPBN
A display at the Portland Food Co-op features some locally-produced products.

Food co-ops are growing in size and in numbers:  There are now more than 300 of them across America, and a dozen in Maine.

"So for a long time it was just sort of ones that had been established in the late 70's, but definitely of late we've seen quite a resurgence in new co-ops opening up," says Chris Grigsby, one of the managers of the Belfast Co-op, which is now nearly 40 years old. 

In the last six years, he says the Belfast Co-op's membership has risen by about 50 percent. It now has 3,700 members, contributing to annual sales of around $8 million.

Meanwhile, back at the newly-opened Portland Food Co-op on busy Congress Street, the mood is festive.  Customer Anne Riggs, a co-op member for six years, has come for locally-baked bread.

"I wanted to be part of something that was community-based," she says, "and I also love good food."