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Nearly 40 members have signed up to be owners of a cooperative grocery store in Salt Lake City, with an opening-date target of fewer than two years.

The co-op will focus on selling organic, sustainable and locally produced foods, said Alison Einerson, a member of the Wasatch Cooperative Market. Owner-members of the for-profit group are to receive annual refunds based on store profits and the amount of food they purchase.

A marketing and feasibility study is planned to determine the co-op's location. Areas being considered in Salt Lake City include downtown, the Avenues, Sugar House and the University of Utah neighborhood.

The cost to become an owner member is $300. Einerson said additional charges are unlikely.

House parties are planned to help members and those interested in participating to become acquainted.

The co-op will operate under principles such as voluntary and open membership, democratic member control and concern for community.

Although more than 500 grocery co-ops operate in the United States, the Wasatch group is Utah's first grocery co-op in recent memory. "Co-ops have always been leaders in supporting local producers and creating those connections for shoppers," said Kelly Smith, spokeswoman for the National Cooperative Grocers Association, which represents the larger co-ops. "You can walk into any co-op during growing season and probably stand a decent chance of meeting a local farmer.

"People are seeking companies that they can trust, and that share their values, especially in light of some of the questionable business practices that are continually reported in the media," she said.

Along with health concerns is an increased worry that grocery-store food typically travels an estimated 1,500 miles from farm to the dinner table.

The grocery cooperative movement can be traced to England when the Rochdale Pioneers Equitable Society opened a store in 1844. The small group of weavers and other tradesmen banded together to sell food they could not otherwise afford, according to the society's Web site.

The society become known for high quality and unadulterated foods. The group also formed a set of principles that provided the foundation for co-ops operating around the world.

Utah's first cooperative, formed by LDS leaders in 1868, was Zions Cooperative Mercantile Institution, or ZCMI -- believed to be the nation's first department store. The chain is now owned by Federated Department Stores Inc., operating under the Macy's nameplate.

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National grocery co-op:

» 112 independent co-op members operate more than 140 storefronts in 32 states.

» Combined sales total more than $1 billion annually.

» The largest co-op operates nine stores in Washington, with total annual sales of $100 million.

» The smallest co-op is located in Ohio, with less than $1 million in annual sales.

» The median cooperative was founded in 1975.

Source: National Cooperative Grocers Association.

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