Columnist Rev. Andrea Ayvazian: The co-op at the heart of the community

The entrance to the River Valley Co-op on Northampton Street (Rt. 10) in Easthampton.

The entrance to the River Valley Co-op on Northampton Street (Rt. 10) in Easthampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO


Published: 06-14-2024 3:53 PM

It was in 1998 when a small group of visionary folks who care about healthy food, supporting local farms and farmers, and building community started meeting in each other’s living rooms to discuss the idea of creating a food co-op in Northampton. The growing volunteer group had grabbed hold of the idea and hundreds of community members soon invested $150 as founding co-op owners. In 2001, Rochelle Prunty agreed to come on board as general manager — at a time when building a local food co-op was still just a dream.

Dreams have power, and the core believers did not stop meeting, did not stop tackling the staggering list of tasks involved, and did not stop promoting the idea. Building a food co-op was a great idea whose time had come!

The tasks were never-ending, the process got stalled several times, and the setbacks were real. But the fundraising was exciting and successful! A hardworking team was able to raise $1.1 million in individual loans from several hundred co-op members, allowing us to leverage the balance of the $10 million required to build our River Valley Co-op.

Before we could get started, however, the problem of securing a location for the co-op proved more difficult than anticipated. After much searching and false starts, the site of the old quarry on North King Street was chosen, a land lease was signed, and construction on the co-op began.

It was nine years between the first discussions of creating a food co-op in Northampton and the day in 2007 when a portion of Route 91 was shut down for hours so the blasting could occur at the old quarry site. The quarry’s underground ledge was blasted out to make space for the storm water drainage infrastructure and foundation for the co-op. After that arduous task was completed, the building went up slowly. In time, our co-op was being stocked and made ready to open. River Valley Co-op opened on April 30, 2008.

Because the store was immediately so wildly successful (and crowded), discussions began among board members about opening a second store sometime in the future. Numerous meetings were held about where/how/when to open a second store. Eventually, a fundraising campaign was launched, and the search for a site began — a search that ended when Easthampton was selected for the second store. Once again, there were numerous tasks to complete and problems to overcome but the new store at 228 Northampton Street in Easthampton was finally constructed and opened on July 1, 2021.

Today there are 16,124 co-op members! I remember when, early on, the co-op made T-shirts that said, “River Valley Co-op/Walk in like you own the place.” And in fact, 16,124 member owners do own the place.

More impressive numbers: the co-ops together, Northampton and Easthampton, employ 242 folks. And the co-op sources food from 352 local farms and food producers.

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River Valley Co-op is a good employer, a good neighbor, and a good community partner. As General Manager Rochelle Prunty recently told me, “River Valley Co-op measures its success not by financial profitability, which is low at best, but by our positive impact in the community, including our local suppliers and other local businesses we work with, our employees, our co-op owners and customers, and our non-profit partners in the Valley.”

Since 2008, the co-op has been intentional and diligent about giving back to the community in very generous ways. Through a variety of grants, sponsorships, and in-kind contributions, the co-op regularly contributes funds to Valley organizations doing good work to improve the lives of local residents and promote social change. Over the past 16 years, the co-op has donated $2.2 million to local nonprofit and cooperative organizations.

This week, on June 13, the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership joined the list of grateful recipients of the co-op’s generosity. At a large, festive, outdoor celebration with dinner, music, and much merriment, the Truth School received the co-op’s Austin Miller Co-op Hero Award which is a huge honor and a great financial boost for the school.

The letter the school received informing us of the award says, “The Austin Miller awards are one way River Valley Co-op celebrates our appreciation for our local partners. These annual awards recognize people and organizations that nurture and sustain our co-op and community.”

The Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership is delighted to receive the Austin Miller Award this year. Not only do we appreciate the significant financial support, but we regard this award as a vote of confidence in our work which is to teach movement-building skills through free online classes during our fall and spring semesters.

The Truth School is based in Northampton but now has a national and international reach — participants attend our Zoom classes from 33 states and 16 countries, and our 40 classes per semester receive outstanding evaluations.

Accepting the Austin Miller Award on behalf of the Truth School, Board Chair Tom Chang expressed heartfelt appreciation for River Valley Co-op, which he called a vital part of our community. With much enthusiasm, Tom said not only is the co-op a great grocery story, but also that our co-op has a heart — reflected in the deep commitment to generously supporting social change work happening up and down the Valley.

Thank you River Valley Co-op for all you do and give. The Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership is enormously grateful for the recognition and support! Signing off with love and appreciation from me, co-op owner #255!

The Rev. Andrea Ayvazian, Ministerial Team, Alden Baptist Church, Springfield, is also founder and director of the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership.