Clicks and bricks : assessing the viability of a food cooperative in Central Pennsylvania
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- Master's theses (IPV) 
As interest in local foods reaches previously unfathomable heights in the United States, there is a growing diversity of business models to bolster local food economies and increase access to a wider range of high quality local products. The cooperative model, in which the business or organization is owned and operated by its users for their benefit, has existed in the food and agricultural sectors for well over a century, but is seeing a resurgence in popularity in recent years. This case study of a food cooperative in an affluent university town in Pennsylvania looks to assess the viability of a cooperative in the ever-expanding local food landscape. The cooperative at hand was at a crossroads of how to proceed with its business model to be most successful in its community, either as an online market food hub or as a local grocery store, and sought feedback from its member-owners to decide its next step. Through an online survey, interviews, and group discussions with subsequent online vote, the Board of Directors gauged community engagement, both potential and realized, to measure the viability of a food cooperative in the given area. The research questions focus on member and community engagement as a gauge for success of a cooperative food venture, the challenges associated with the success of a cooperative food venture, and possible ways in which a cooperative model can survive in the context of other alternative food networks. The study finds a wealth of existing and emerging local food ventures in the area that fill a niche similar to that of the proposed cooperative. The study shows a trend of a community generous with its money, but less with its time, energy, and emotional engagement. The lack of member engagement is a major challenge for a cooperative food venture to succeed, as are intra-organizational conflict inherent to cooperatives, the online market business model and that it does not fit into traditional consumer habits nor does it provide its patrons with competitive priced goods, the time required of a working Board of Directors to make such changes, and the lack of a concrete identity within the community. Those things, along with an overreliance on the value of social embeddedness lead to the conclusion that a non-cooperative model could potentially find more success.