Cooperation Among Cooperatives Rebuilds Equitable Food System

Trade group, P6, aims to uplift small, local and cooperative producers
Posted by: 
David Zuckerman and Katie Parker
P6 Logo

Grocery or “natural food” co-ops pioneered promoting local and organic foods, helping to propel these concepts into the mainstream. But spurred by expanding consumer demand, large corporations now dominate the market and have increased pressure on independent, grocery co-ops around the country. Today, the labels of organic, local, or natural do not necessarily reflect a more equitable distribution of wealth and profits. Without a reversal of the current trend, the values of community ownership, sustainability, health and equity that underpinned the local and organic food movement initially will further erode over time.

P6 is a national trade movement implemented at an in-store level that aims to draw attention to these issues of ownership and control, and promote a more democratic and transparent food economy. Using recognizable branding, P6 showcases producers that meet two of three criteria: cooperative, local, and small. More than just a label, however, P6 is a cooperative of cooperatives. 

The name P6 is a direct nod to principle six of the International Cooperative Alliance seven cooperative principles: “Cooperatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the cooperative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.” P6 creates this structure, allowing co-ops to support one another and work together to develop innovative models and practices.

We had the chance to ask Aaron Reser, National Director of P6, and Ruby Levine, Marketing and Communications Contractor, about their work: 

Can you describe the origins and evolution of P6? How has this shaped your mission?

P6 was founded in 2009 by Equal Exchange, a worker owned cooperative, and an initial group of six consumer co-ops. The program grew from looking back at the good work that had happened to build fairer food systems locally and internationally over the past 20 years. So much progress had been made; fair trade certification is widely recognized, popularity of local and organic food has skyrocketed. At the same time, small farmers— the heart of fair trade and local foods—were not always benefitting. Plantations were being allowed into fair trade certification, large multi-national food corporations were becoming key players in organics and the natural food industry faced increasing consolidation. P6 encourages us to ask not only how our products are produced, but who benefits from our purchases. By working together, we’re able to leverage our purchasing power to increase market share for small producers and cooperatives, both locally to our respective stores and internationally.  

P6 Producers

Why did you decide on local, small and cooperative as your criteria for P6? Were there other contenders?

Fundamentally, P6 was created to help consumers filter their purchases away from the corporate food system toward small, local, and cooperative producers. We’re often asked why organic and fair trade aren’t criterion. Both are existing labels found directly on products, with external certification and regulation. All P6 members have a strong commitment to supporting organic and fair trade producers and have prioritized these in their product selection since well before the inception of P6. P6 sheds light on issues of ownership and profit concentration within the natural foods industry and champions small farms and the cooperative model as a vibrant alternative

P6 Signage

Members are able to define these criteria in the context of their own communities. Can you talk about this process?

P6 is intentionally a very participatory program. We realize it’s somewhat unconventional to have a program like P6 where there is a labeling component that’s not top-down but driven internally at the store level. The three criteria of small, local, co-op are national requirements. From there, retail cooperatives define what these mean specific to their own regional context and existing local food infrastructure. Once criteria definitions are set, staff vet products for the P6 label at their store. There is support from the national organization throughout, but this process of defining criteria and then vetting products at the store level is a way that participation is hard-wired into the program. Think of the deep conversations, decision making, and systems being developed at the store level to filter for P6 products as a way that stores are flexing their participatory muscles, rolling up their sleeves to do the work of building strong local and regional food systems and supporting international cooperative supply chains. 

Sign at Ozark Natural Foods, AR

You are building a national cooperative trade movement that is grounded in local communities--can you talk about the tension of balancing these different scales?

There is territory to navigate in balancing local autonomy with fidelity to a national model, but really the national reach of P6 is much more an asset than a source of tension. The national network makes everyone feel connected and supported in their local work. We learn a lot from each other. There are also concrete business advantages to tapping into a national network. For example, Maple Valley Cooperative (a co-op of maple syrup producers) just joined P6 and now as their business scales up they have a strong connection to a close network of peer retail co-ops that are expanding the Maple Valley product line in their stores.

One challenge has been about international products. P6 national guidelines state that all products that contain an internationally grown product as their first ingredient (peanut butter, for example) will receive the P6 label only if they have their sourcing of that product vetted to make sure it’s coming from small farmer cooperatives. However, that can be difficult to implement across the whole network, and sometimes stores are so excited about a local producer that they don’t take the time to research down the whole chain. Equal Exchange has been the key ally in both educating P6 members on the importance of supporting international small farmers, and in helping stores research international ingredient sourcing.

Customers tasting maple syrup from P6 member Maple Valley at the P6 tailgate party hosted by Viroqua Food Co-op in Viroqua, WI

How do you balance the difference in scale and size of member co-ops that comprise P6? Describe your governance structure?

P6 members all come to the table as peers. One interpretation of the 6th cooperative principle is that co-ops with more resources and experience have a role in mentoring and supporting smaller co-ops, and we see this at P6. However, some of the smallest P6 retail co-ops have the closest relationships with their local producers and have had an active hand in developing local food businesses, so there’s something to learn from everyone regardless of size.

P6 is now open to retail co-ops and producer (or wholesale) co-ops. This is a difference we are newly learning to balance- the difference between working with retail co-ops and the co-ops producing products for retail stores. All P6 members pay annual dues to the P6 organization based on annual sales, allowing P6 to be accessible to co-ops of different sizes while still supporting the P6 program. P6 is a one member one vote co-op. The board of directors is made up of elected representatives from P6 member co-ops and there are spaces on the board reserved for both retail and wholesale co-ops.


What is your vision for where you want to be in 1 year, 5 years, 10 years?

This is an important growth phase for P6. P6 has a strong model for working with retail grocery co-ops and in the next year one major focus is bench testing the model for wholesale co-ops. We want to bring many more co-op retail stores and cooperative producers into the Cooperative Trade Movement. Growth is important for the sustainability of the P6 program, but more importantly we’re excited about growth as a way to leverage the collective impact P6 has.

Our shared vision is a food system where small farmers local to our co-ops and across the globe are thriving. Where strong cooperative, community based economies generate wealth for the 99% and drive profits back to the pockets of the hard working farmers, food producers, and workers along the supply chains that feed us. We want P6 to have a role in re-building local and regional food system infrastructure and envision new, fair, international co-op products we don’t yet see on store shelves.