Damon Lawrence is a busy man. He has his job at the Los Angeles Fire Department, six children, a front yard garden where he grows artichokes and heirloom tomatoes and in what little time is left in the day, he is working to change the way Long Beach eats.
Lawrence is working to open Long Beach’s first grocery cooperative business, or a co-op. Co-ops are local businesses owned by several members of the community designed to distribute earnings more evenly. These members invest in and operate the business as a community, democratically deciding things like prices, wages and products sold.
Lawrence also plans to use the co-op for philanthropic ends, providing funding for social programs and offering employment opportunities to the homeless.
Following the egress of the local Albertsons from Rose Park, the only major market in the community, Lawrence began writing letters to grocery chains hoping for a replacement — but was met with rejection on all fronts.
“They sent it back to us and said, ‘your area doesn’t fit our demographic need,’” Lawrence said.
Lawrence took it upon himself to fill the gap. He felt the corporations failed the community and brought up the possibility of a grocery co-op in a community meeting in Rose Park.
His first exposure to co-ops was during a trip to Oregon. In a local market, he was asked if he was a “member-owner,” a term he was unfamiliar with. After a conversation with an employee, Lawrence began to see co-ops as an opportunity to ethically compete with big businesses.
“The first thing out of everyone’s mouth was, ‘What is that?’” he said. “I had only been in one co-op but I started to do some digging.”
His search brought him to Co Opportunity in Santa Monica, where he asked an employee stocking shelves about the store.
“In my capitalist mind I was thinking, ‘OK, someone has got to be being exploited here,’” Lawrence said.
He was met with a pleasant surprise. The employee had nothing but good things to say about the store, and had even quit his previous job managing a Home Depot to work there.
Since that conversation, Lawrence has reached out to the community in an attempt to educate people about co-ops and fuel the discussion to bring one to Long Beach.
“This isn’t something new, we have seen that this will work,” he said, citing the viability of co-ops, especially the proliferation of the businesses in states like Vermont.
One of the first people to join Lawrence in striving to bring co-ops to Long Beach was Michelle Berns. When Berns’ son developed a cyst on his brain, she was recommended that in addition to medicinal intervention, dietary improvements could help her son, which led her to a local co-op in Eureka, California.
“The co-op was the only place that we could get that food,” Berns said. “It really was a life saver in that way.”
The appreciation led Berns to become a member-owner and started her involvement in her local co-op.
“Up there the board elections were bigger than the city council elections,” she said, “It really was a hub for the community.”
After moving to Long Beach and missing Eureka’s co-op scene, Berns happened upon Lawrence’s Facebook group.
“Apparently they had just, just organized,” she said, “I had to get involved.”
Lawrence points to larger, more well-known co-ops such as Land o’Lakes butter and ACE Hardware, explaining how they combat the impact that mega-stores like Walmart can have on a community.
“Walmart is one of the largest corporations in the United States, now you’ve got Amazon getting into food,” he said. “What we are talking about is very few hands are controlling what we eat.”
He mentioned that once large chain stores drive out their local competition, they often raise prices.
One not so sweet example Lawrence singled out was the chocolate industry. Companies like Nestle have been implicated in using child slave labor to harvest cacao, according to The Global Slavery Index.
“A lot of these chocolate companies are using African kids’ slave labor to pick the chocolate beans,” Lawrence said. “What your kid is enjoying is at the expense of another child … slave labor in this day and age. It hit me in the gut.”
Lawrence explained that abuse of workers is not only foreign, but domestic. This abuse is largely caused by executives taking too large of a cut from profits.
“There are so few corporations to work for, and they can demand what they want from the farmer,” he said. “There is no other market out there … we the people are the only ones who can really create an alternative market.”
By cooperating with local farmers, Lawrence hopes to provide them with such.
“Nobody is going to make a killing owning a piece of stock in the co-op,” he said. “Instead of one person making 10 million dollars, 100 can make 100 thousand.”
Lawrence said the freedom of a co-op means he is not beholden to a corporate board and breaking even is acceptable as a large portion of the revenue will be funneled into philanthropic efforts.
“When I see someone who doesn’t have enough to eat I think, ‘Do I want to make a purchase so Jeff Bezos can have his 100th house on the French Riviera, or do I want to help others?’” Lawrence said.
Lawrence hopes this philanthropy in conjunction with hiring homeless and formerly homeless people will enrich the community. He also plans to use a percentage of the co-op’s profits to fund local programs.
“We know these programs work, but when they lose funding everything goes back to how it was,” he said. “This co-op can be a funder, it can keep funding these programs.”
Berns also espoused the philanthropic elements of co-ops.
“A co-op isn’t just a store that says something, it’s a store that does something,” she said, “We really are in the same playing field, all of us.”
The social impact of co-ops is nothing new, Lawrence explained that in the Jim Crow era, many in the black community started co-ops.
Lawrence has yet to cement a location for the store, but hopes that it will open in slightly over a year and a half.
More information about the Long Beach Grocery Co-op can be found at https://www.longbeachgrocery.coop.