Emma Freedman, a project associate at The Food Trust, has been working with corner store owners—or bodegueros—in Camden, New Jersey since mid-2019. It’s a close community, in some ways; store owners run into one another at local warehouses when stocking up on goods, and Emma jokes with them that she wants to make a family tree of stores so she can see how everyone is related.
And yet in other ways, the store owners have not been well connected. They all work long hours in their physically separate stores, and they hadn’t built effective structures to support one another with common issues, such as SNAP/EBT processing or robberies. One store owner, Wendy Beltrez of Junior Supermarket, said he thinks the community is “stuck working the same ways as 10 years ago,” and welcomes new ideas to improve business.
When the pandemic hit, Emma formed a WhatsApp group with about 85 store owners to send grant applications and support them virtually. This, she says, was the “spark for larger-scale communication across stores.”
Through the WhatsApp group, these store owners shared information and aligned on strategies together. They collectively decided, for instance, to close their stores at 8pm even after a curfew was lifted. Some of them met with Mayor Moran to advocate for their needs as essential workers.
There were hints that some store owners were looking to organize themselves into something more, some sort of structure that would allow them to sustainably support and uplift one another. So Emma reached out to PACA.
Over the past few months, one of PACA’s Co-op Business Developers, Jeanette Cuevas, has supported Emma and a core group of store owners in the early, exploratory phases of cooperative development. Specifically, she helped the store owners form a steering committee and elect roles within it. Jeanette also facilitated some co-op education, helping store owners understand the difference (and overlap) between cooperatives and other associative structures. She supported them in planning and holding monthly “asembleas,” which have gathered 25-35 store owners each time, whether outside or on Zoom.
So where is the group now? Well, they are still working to understand the needs they are seeking to address, and the appropriate structures to meet those needs. If, for instance, the primary needs are around advocacy and sharing information, then a mutual aid organization or nonprofit business association may be a strong fit. If, though, store owners are also really interested in working together to do collective buying of goods sold in their stores, then a purchasing cooperative might make sense.
That option is appealing to Wendy, while Jose Medina, owner of Medina Food Market, sees the ultimate value in working together no matter the structure. As he put it, “We are in the process of collecting ideas and identifying a process for deciding the best option for us, so that the cooperative or association of bodegueros is registered at City Hall and together we can finally have the rights that we haven’t had for so long here in Camden.”
Here at PACA, we say all the time that a cooperative is the combination of two things: an association of people with a shared need or interest, AND an enterprise. There is power built through that association of people, whether or not an enterprise is formed. So these store owners are building up their association. Whether there is also a purchasing co-op formed? We’ll have to wait and see on that one.
Note: Remarks from Wendy Beltrez and Jose Medina have been translated from Spanish.