Invest in communities of color, or die! [Part IV: The last capitalist]

Invest in communities of color, or die! [Part IV: The last capitalist]

Benjamin Harrison

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DEC 20, 2022

Part 4: The Last Capitalist


“Humanity has passed through a long history of one-sidedness and of a social condition that has always contained the potential of destruction, despite its creative achievements in technology. The great project of our time must be to open the other eye: to see all-sidedly and wholly, to heal and transcend the cleavage between humanity and nature that came with early wisdom." –Murray Bookchin

Part I: The problem
Part II: Food deserts aren't real

Part III: How to fail
Part IV: The last capitalist
Part V: Revolution

In Part III, I discussed the failed co-op, Renaissance Food Co-op, in Greensboro, NC. They had 1,000 working-class members. Do you know how they got them?

It takes too long to start a co-op

It really does. To launch Renaissance Food Cooperative, organizers with the Southern Fund for Democratic Communities went door-to-door in a working class Black community.

They had real face-to-face interactions and slowly educated the community about co-ops and food deserts.

Eventually, 1,000 people had invested $10 per month in the co-op for one year.

Let’s face it. Co-ops are freak institutions. Investors want nothing to do with them because they’re goal is to meet a need in the community more than it is to generate profit.

Without profit, there’s no return on investment (ROI). This is a major flaw in the investment industry, angel investors included.

But there is ROI for the community, like dividends, for example, which are profit but generally less attractive to investors.

Dividends are a percentage of the company’s profits that are paid out to members / customers, usually at the end of each year.

Find something everyone loves, even if it’s just one thing. Then go for it, start making it.

– Benjamin Harrison, CEO & Cofounder, FareMarket

Heavenly Pizza

In 2021, Josh Elchert, owner of Heavenly Pizza in Finlay, OH, gave 100 percent of the restaurant’s profit to his employees for Employee Appreciation Day.

The staff earned a whopping $78 per hour. So dividends–from a business that earns more than $1 million annually–are nothing to sneeze at. They’re the most secure form of generational wealth.


How to start a co-op

Do you have to knock on a thousand doors, educate the people behind those doors, and convince them to invest $10 a month for a year?

Do we have a year to wait for the community to build the sustainable alternatives that will curb climate change?

I don’t think so. See more at the end of this article.

Types of cooperatives

Producer cooperatives

Producer co-ops are most common in agriculture. One farmer may not be able to afford the cost of scaling their farm with distribution, marketing, cold storage, etc.

They probably can, however, if they split the costs with nine other business owners (farmers). That’s, in essence, a producer co-op.

Some of these co-ops have become quite powerful, lobbying for looser environmental regulations and hindering smaller competitors (more on this subject later).


Worker-owned cooperatives

Worker-owned co-ops have inspired revolutions, including the Anarcho-Syndicalist revolution in Spain in the 1930s, which was almost a total success (more later, maybe).

I firmly believe in workers’ rights and the right to unionize and strike. I don’t think worker ownership is the solution, but it’s part of the solution.

If you’re curious about union corruption, Paul Schraeder directed an interesting film, starring Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel, called Blue Collar. I found it on the Criterion Channel.

What tends to happen in worker-owned co-ops is that, over time, they behave more and more like capitalist organizations. Look at the Mondragon Corporation in Spain.

There you’ll see many of the problems we find in capitalist institutions: publicly traded / aimed to compete with capitalists in the global economy, offshoring jobs, environmentally harmful practices.

Behaving like capitalists to stay competitive is generally unavoidable because the foundation of sustainability—the community—which is the only truly stable support system for ethical production, is weak.

Community-owned cooperatives


Co-ops owned by their customers (consumer cooperatives) can remain sustainable, ethical, and generate communal wealth by staying small and avoiding the “grow or die” mentality.

Ideally, they have roughly 300 member-customers or are in community geographies of around 300 owner-inhabitants with a smaller portion of those 300 who are active participants in the co-op.

The larger these co-ops get, the easier it is for power to be consolidated in a small incumbent board of directors (see Part III).

A food co-op, while it isn’t Walmart, is still a sizable operation. Even with $120,000 raised by Renaissance from its community members still had to be leveraged to qualify for operating loans.

Loans can be an incredible burden for a new business’s operating budget as well as their ability to pivot if the business has hiccups or begins to hemorrhage cash.

It is impressive, Renaissance’s thousand members. It speaks to how attractive community ownership can be when people understand it.

But it took considerable effort to conduct the outreach and raise the initial funds from members.

For the company to pay dividends, to be flexible and mobile, to meet quorum requirements for decision-making, 1,000 members is too many.

I recommend cutting off ownership at 300 members before starting a second co-op. Then, confederate.

Confederating spreads out the risk, increases mobility, and better encourages participation. Similarly, too small can also be a burden.

But having multiple co-ops allied in purpose (just like producers in a producer co-op) can better help other communities create new co-ops, promote together, share costs, and effect policy changes.


10,000 square feet

Renaissance Food Cooperative struggled with product selection (see Part III). But what if you know a handful of the most popular food items that, say, 75 percent of people use?

Find something everyone loves, even if it’s just one thing. Then go for it, start making it.

Those are the kinds of things we sell at FareMarket. Those are the kinds of products we want to buy and distribute to our customers.

FareMarket has a direct link to buyers who don’t live in food deserts, who appreciate locally-made and produced foods, like milk, meats, bread, fruits, and vegetables.

Think staples. Think small community-owned farms. 300 members can support things like that. It’s much more manageable to get started on a product you know can work in the market and/or your community than it is to recruit 1,000 members.

The planet doesn’t have time for that.

FareMarket is a marketplace. We retail and wholesale foods grown or made in Arkansas. If you live in Central Arkansas and bought Arkansas strawberries, tomatoes, peaches, apples, or local milk at the store this year, it’s highly likely they came from FareMarket.

Our customers buy locally-sourced food. FareMarket is in the perfect position to provide market research because those conversations are part of our everyday operations.

I didn’t start FareMarket to create a private label; I started FareMarket to support cooperative development in our most vulnerable communities, communities this economy has disinvested from.

If you’re in Arkansas, Memphis, TN, Springfield, MO, or Tulsa, OK, and you want to organize a co-op that produces local food in a food desert, that’s our current range and what we’re interested in.


How to start a co-op

Step 1: Gauge interest

Start with a few members, 10-20 is good.

Step 2: Market research

Choose a product, do the market research first (customer interviews, solution interviews).

Step 3: Filing

Incorporate the business (file with Secretary of State).

Step 4: Establish bylaws

Be clear about how the business functions, votes, etc. This will prevent disagreements and division over assets that could stop the co-op in its tracks.

Step 5: Prototyping

Begin production on a small scale (preferably with member dues to cover startup costs).

Step 6: Launch in the market

Let FareMarket know about your product (or–best practice–we’ve already been talking about it), so we can begin to place orders and get your product to buyers.

Step 7: Fundraise / recruit member-owners

Start doing outreach to bring the community together as members in your consumer cooperative. This will help you scale operations and diversify your product offerings.

Use the comments section below if you have any questions.


The last capitalist

What I've outlined here is a hybrid model. It's possible for a capitalist (me) to generate profit while building cooperative models in food deserts that are not specifically profit-driven.

Savvy investors will see an opportunity in FareMarket as this model takes on new dimensions.

You may have guessed that this blend of communal and capitalist practices can be applied to all industries, not just food. And what that indicates is an encroachment of true democracy, collective decision-making, on outdated modes of production.

Following this philosophy to its logical conclusion, prudent capitalists who understand the realities of current market circumstances can use business to build alternatives that will aid the transition to something much better.

These will be the last capitalists. More on this in part V.


Written by Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin is the founder and CEO of FareMarket, a data analyst, professional writer and researcher, food justice advocate, and a former urban farmer.


Part 5: Revolution

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