MAYNARD — Tumeria Langlois first learned about it at a town festival. Fran Sharp got word at an activities fair. For Emily Wheeler, it was while she was attending a gardening workshop.
All three women were intrigued to hear about a group of volunteers planning to open suburban Boston’s first modern food co-op, a market that would offer its customers ownership shares while prioritizing local farmers and producers.
None of them imagined it would take quite as long as it did. But after more than 10 years, a capital campaign that raised $2 million, and the assemblage of 2,100 members from 40 communities, the Assabet Co-op Market late last month welcomed share owners, local vendors and suppliers, and shoppers into the newly renovated 8,000-square-foot storefront in Maynard.
Food co-ops are independent businesses run by a board of directors and collectively owned by their members. At the Assabet Co-op Market, memberships cost a one-time fee of $200, and members are entitled to reap an annual percentage of the profit, take advantage of bulk ordering discounts, and vote on store initiatives and board elections. Nonmembers are welcome to shop there as well. Co-ops typically prioritize local sourcing, sustainability, and inclusive access.
“I was drawn to the principles of sharing the wealth in the community,” said Sharp, who lived in Sudbury when she first heard about the co-op but has since moved to Maynard. Sharp bought her Assabet Co-op Market membership seven years ago and volunteered on the capital campaign while she waited for it to open.
“As a foodie, I was really interested in local organic food being available in a way that would benefit the community, with the money going back to the farmers or the food producers,” she said. I also value the fact that with local vendors supplying the market, food doesn’t have to be shipped long distances, which means a lower carbon footprint.”
According to the Neighboring Food Co-op Association, the only other storefront food co-ops currently operating in Massachusetts and open to members and nonmembers alike are located in Western Massachusetts, with plans underway in Watertown and on the Dorchester Food Co-op, which is scheduled to open in July. Maynard is about 25 miles west of Boston.
“Now that it’s here, we shop at the co-op almost every day,” said Langlois of Maynard, who a decade ago was the 36th person to purchase a membership. “My husband and I are both vegan, and we find amazing things there like hummus wraps, veggie chili, chorizo bowls, roasted potatoes, and baked goods. We eat out on the market’s deck, overlooking the Assabet River, watching the geese and birds.”
But it’s not just about the food — or the setting. “We take pride in being owners, even if it’s along with two thousand other people,” Langlois said. “And Maynard is the perfect place for it, a very community-oriented town, artsy and eclectic.”
For local farmers, it’s another way to reach customers. “The whole modus operandi of a food co-op is to support local growers,” said Ray Mong, co-owner of Applefield Farm in neighboring Stow. “We’ve been looking forward to having a presence at this co-op for a couple of years now. One of the greatest benefits for us is that many of their customers already know us by name; they’ve visited our farm or shopped at our farmstand. This is a community endeavor, and I love seeing produce from our neighboring farms displayed alongside ours.”
Other nearby farms currently supplying the market include Small Farm in Stow, Hutchins Farm in Concord, Johnny Putt Farm in Littleton, Giant Gorilla Greens in Woburn, and Fat Moon Farm in Westford. Identification cards mark the origin of the produce in the store.
It’s this kind of relationship that makes co-ops special, said Julie Hafer, who, as store opening development director for the National Co+op Grocers, worked closely with the Assabet team prior to its opening. “It is a grocery store and a place to purchase what you need, but it is also an integral component of the community. Community members created it, and they are who keep it running and make the day-to-day decisions.”
On a quiet Tuesday earlier this month, Wheeler finally visited the space she’d long anticipated. She was delighted to find her favorite kind of organic chocolate bar on sale.
“I spoke with a staff member and was impressed with how much he knew,” said Wheeler, of Concord. “The staff’s knowledge, enthusiasm, and excitement make it a different kind of grocery experience.”
And although the displays of fresh organic produce and the deli case brimming with homemade soups may make Assabet Co-op Market look like an upscale food emporium, the co-op movement holds inclusivity as a fundamental value. Affordability to all consumers, whether they choose to buy memberships or not, is critical to the mission, said general manager Sam McCormick. Applications are underway for the market to be able to accept SNAP and WIC benefits, and the staff is creating a program to subsidize memberships for low-income shoppers.
McCormick, who previously managed the Mariposa Food Co-op in West Philadelphia, didn’t know much about Maynard when hired by the board of directors, but was impressed by the area after relocating. “I see Maynard as a small town with a really interesting mix of folks,” McCormick said. “Some are passionate about what we are doing. Others don’t know about co-ops but are interested in learning.
“We have a group that has been working toward this for years, and now that we’ve opened, it’s wonderful to see people show up. We look at it as ‘We did our part by making it happen; your part now is to come in and shop.’ And that’s been happening every day.”
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.