The Mustard Seed, a downtown grocery co-op proposed for Hamilton, was featured on the front page of today's Hamilton Spectator!

Couple says user-owned food store would hit the spot in downtown Hamilton

In less than a week, a small group behind an effort to create a grocery co-op in Hamilton has had 475 responses to an online survey asking for community feedback.

The trio is clearly surprised by the strong and swift response. They hastily assembled a Facebook page to get their message out and although none of them use Twitter, they hear their efforts are making the rounds there, too.

They call themselves The Mustard Seed and they envision a small urban store in a cool downtown location that looks great and sells local and organic food, along with basic grocery staples. Under the co-operative model, consumers would buy memberships and have voting power about the store’s operation, and the venture would have close ties with local farmers and the community.

Graham and Emma Cubitt and their friend Lynda Dykstra believe Hamilton is poised to embrace a food co-op because more people are moving downtown. They’ve had about 50 people say they would be willing to get involved in making it happen.

Lots of people want to eat locally but it’s a lot of work to do the research about foods in season and to visit growers, they say.

As well, they say while there are specialty food stores in the core and a few chain grocers on its outskirts, there isn’t a full-scale option right in the downtown.

And lastly, they are well aware of a proposed city incentive that would give a chosen food operation $650,000 to locate in the core.

“It’s taxpayers’ money so we think a community-based grocery that’s viable would be an ideal recipient of that kind of incentive,” said Graham, who works for an affordable housing developer.

“One of the things about Hamilton is that we look for an outside silver bullet, a developer that will come in, when it’s small businesses in the city that are the ones making the investments that really make a difference.”

Emma, an architect in Hamilton, half-jokes that the group is hoping to hear from a building owner looking to donate to the cause.

The Cubitts have visited food co-ops in the United States and England to flesh out their vision. They’ve talked to community groups in Hamilton and know that the concept has been talked about in the city before.

They also say there is a fair bit of confusion about what a food co-op is, with some people thinking it’s about communal gardening or buying clubs.

But other communities are organizing grocery co-ops. There are established ones in Toronto, Buffalo and London. Stratford launched one last year and there is an effort under way in St. Catharines.

Downtown St. Catharines has been without a grocery store since an A&P pulled out in 2004, says Rowan Shirkie, a committee member. Residents have to rely on a three-days-a-week farmers market, buying expensive food at convenience stores or driving out to a big box store on the periphery, he says. He’s a fan of neither of the latter options.

“The shopping is kind of clinical. People run around and grimace and get through it as fast as they can.”

Shirkie thinks a renaissance in co-ops is coming because since the financial meltdown of 2008, many people have lost faith in big banks and corporations.

As for the name behind the Hamilton venture, they chose The Mustard Seed for a couple of reasons. First, it has a Hamilton connection, with the city being home to the largest miller of dry mustard in the world, G.S. Dunn Limited. As well, mustard seeds are small, but grow into something many times their size and pack a powerful punch.

“That’s what we aspire to be: small but impactful,” Dykstra says with a laugh.

The online survey can be found at themustardseedcoop.wordpress.com.

mmacleod@thespec.com

905-526-3408 | @meredithmacleod

 

A history of co-operation

Co-operatives date back to the mid-1800s in England and flourished in farming, fishing and forestry in Canada until after the Second World War when the capitalistic creed of private industry firmly took hold, says Peter Cameron, co-op development manager with the Ontario Co-operative Association.

There are more than 1,300 co-ops in Ontario in a variety of sectors including credit unions, insurance, housing, agriculture, retail and child care. They can be for-profit or nonprofit. Gay Lea Dairy is a co-op and The Co-operators is a co-op of co-ops.

While there are large food co-ops in Canada, including one in Calgary and the Atlantic Co-op that supplies major grocery stores, Cameron says he’s baffled why a national grocery co-op hasn’t already mimicked the “roaring success” of Mountain Equipment Co-op. The outdoors store started in 1971 with six members and now has 3.3 million across the country, along with yearly revenues of $260 million in 15 stores.

But Cameron says the success of co-ops is “one of the best kept secrets,” at least in Ontario. He says Quebec and British Columbia have many more co-ops and studies there have proved that co-ops have double the 10-year success rate of that of conventional private companies.

“It just makes sense. If a co-op is supported by its members, their commitment is greater to their success.”

Cameron is concerned about the end of federal funding that supported the development of co-ops. The funding will end next spring.

“If you’re bailing out the auto sector and bailing out banks, why not support a sector that didn’t need it?”

 

By the numbers

2012: the United Nations’ International Year of the Co-op

1 billion: Number of co-op members worldwide

1.4 million: Number of co-op members in Ontario

$30 billion: Assets governed by co-ops in Ontario

15,500: People employed by co-ops in Ontario

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