By BARBARA TETREAULT
ANDROSCOGGIN VALLEY — Plans for a cooperative food store in the Berlin-Gorham area have progressed to the point where the Androscoggin Food Co-op is now recruiting members.
The food co-op will offer everything found in a traditional grocery plus local fresh food and products. It will focus on bringing local families, farmers and food producers together to offer fresh and affordable produce. Like the Littleton Co-op in Littleton, it will be a hybrid food co-op, offering both organic and non-organic items.
The co-op will also offer informative classes and events.
A dedicated group of volunteers has been working for two years on plans for the co-op and has incorporated, created bylaws, put together a business plan, and set up an initial board of directors and attracted grant funding.
Board Vice President Peter Higbee said the co-op is inviting people to join and become members. As owners of the co-op, members have a say in how it is operated.
There is a one-time $200 membership fee, which can be paid in one lump sum or in installments. Shopping at the food co-op will be open to all, membership will not be required.
Several months ago, the committee invited people who had indicated interest in the co-op to be early investors. Higbee said the response was positive and the co-op is now going out to the public at large.
Higbee said the steering committee has taken its time and worked hard laying the groundwork for the co-op.
The effort received a $30,000 grant from USDA Rural Business Development, a $15,000 grant from the Neil and Louise Tillotson Foundation, and a $2,500 grant from the Coos Economic Development Corporation.
The funding allowed hiring a part-time manager for a year and other consultants.
“We’ve spent the last two years getting ready,” he said.
A big help has been the Food Co-op Initiative, an organization that helps food co-ops start up across the nation. They have provided training and members have attended their conferences.
“They’ve studied what works and what doesn’t,” Higbee said.
He noted Ed King, the general manager of the Littleton Co-op, is part of the planning group and has provided valuable insight.
The next steps for the co-op depend on membership. When there are 300 members, the committee will go ahead with detailed market and feasibility studies that will suggest the size of the store, what it should carry and the estimated cost.
Once there are about 600 members, the timeline calls for launching a capital campaign, first with members and then with external funding.
Shawn Marquis said when he decided to move back to his hometown two years ago, he got involved with the co-op because he loves to cook and loves fresh ingredients. He said creating a sense of community around a co-op grocery store is exciting and he is happy to lend his talents to it.
Devon York is another member of the committee who came back to Berlin where she went to middle and high school. While a lot of people may have the idea that a co-op grocery store is expensive and exclusive, she said the committee wants it to be affordable as well as a source of employment.
“We are really trying to do this for us,” she said.
Higbee said no location has been selected for the co-op store. He said that decision will likely be decided by the studies.
While the committee formed two years ago, interest in a food co-op in the valley dates back more than five years. A feasibility study undertaken in 2015 found there was good market potential for a food co-op in the valley.
For more information or to join, go to androfood.coop.