Last year, Hawaii’s only food retail cooperative celebrated its 40th birthday. Founded in 1971 by a group of Honolulu residents who wanted access to high-quality, minimally processed, natural foods, Kokua Market has grown over the years and now operates a 4,400 square-foot retail space, with 3,500 member-owners, 43 employees and annual gross sales of $3.3 million.

The store, near the university in Hawaii’s capital, Honolulu, sells a large variety of local produce from the state, a great advantage given that Hawaii is located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from the US mainland and Asia. “It takes two weeks for orders from the mainland to get packed, shipped, and distributed to us,” says Bradley Chun, current Vice-President and former President of the cooperative’s Board of Directors. He says they source many products from small local farms, who only sell their products at Kokua or farmers’ markets.

These include Rocky’s Mangoes, “large, delicious, beautiful, fresh mangoes grown at a farm in the far west side of the island. We visited his farm on one of our farm tours, and we’re the only store that sells his fruit,” says Chun. “Another example is Hawaii Wildflower Honey, which is produced from bees kept by a beekeeper that came to my own house this year to transfer a hive that had established itself in an old Kamado smoker in our backyard. He keeps the bees in several locations then takes the honey to be processed without heating or filtration at a diversified organic farm which we also visited on one of our farm tours.” Other products include Indigenous Soap made on Oahu, grass-fed beef from Kulana Farms on the island of Hawaii and avocados from “The Avo Man.” Pat Sinclair is an avocado distributor on the Big Island who helps small family farms in Kona to earn extra money by buying their avocadoes at the highest price and selling them at the lowest possible price to stores like Kokua Market, helping both farmers and consumers benefit.

The store also stocks products from other cooperatives, bulk goods and organic and local coffees. An in-store deli, opened when the store expanded in 2007, sells prepared foods like sandwiches, salads, soups and raw vegan desserts.

“Our market consists of our member-owners and the larger community,” says Chun. “Over 50% of our customers are not member-owners.” He says that throughout its history, the cooperative has sought to establish connections with its surrounding community—whether collaborating on a mural with an artists’ collective that involves youth from low-income neighbourhoods, participating in a sustainability project with students from the University of Hawaii or organizing a bike-repair workshop, a glossy paper recycling event or a screening of the documentary Food, Inc.

Kokua has also been active in promoting cooperatives in Hawaii, helping push a bill through the State Legislature in 1981 to create a Consumer Cooperative Association Corporate Charter, allowing coops to sell owner shares without a securities permit.

“The cooperative offers an alternative model of business from that of the corporation,” explains Chun. He says their democratic system of governance seeks to gain the participation of all member-owners, who can feel that the store is intimately their own, and commit to building a community together. “The cooperative form engages individuals to work together, as opposed to just looking after their own self-interest.”