Co-op Power

Leveraged for social change, local food, and local connections

CoopPower_Earthday 2005.jpg
La Montanita’s Earth Day celebration.

From Brattleboro to Bellingham, many co-ops across America are engaging their members in activism and finding that the work adds value to both their stores and their communities. Their stories reveal a wide range of activities reflecting local concerns and needs that blend with the desire of co-op members to address these matters with their hands and energy.

Local connections

The 3,800-member Brattleboro Food Co-op in Vermont supports its members who volunteer at local schools and nonprofits. These volunteers are able to bank up to six hours of community service time and count that toward the co-op’s annual work commitment of 24 hours. Shelters, food banks, public school and after-school programs, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and other youth groups gain from the co-op’s volunteer spirit. Fulfilling the annual work commitment earns the members a 10 percent discount on all store purchases.

“The community benefits, and we all benefit,” says Jenifer Morier, the co-op’s member services coordinator. She estimates that 200 of the co-op’s members actively help Brattleboro organizations.

Another way members fulfill their nonprofit volunteer hours is by working with the co-op-supported Genetic Engineering Action Group. About 18 co-op members are involved with educating Vermonters about the potential threat posed by genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to food and the environment.

The co-op also works to connect its customers to local farmers. The “producer of the month” is highlighted in the newsletter and is invited to host an in-store demo counter display and sampler. “This is a way for customers to get to know whom they are buying their food from,” notes Morier. The highlighted producer’s product is on sale all month. “We try to buy local products as much as possible,” adds Morier.

Schools and farmer relationships

A labor law ruling during the 1990s redefined operations at La Montañita Co-op in New Mexico. The co-op has four stores (two in Albuquerque and one each in Gallup and Santa Fe) and 11,000 member households. The co-op’s volunteers now work in the community at various nonprofits. They receive an 18 percent discount at the store for their efforts.

The biggest beneficiary is the public school system. Volunteers help four partner schools with tutoring and assisting with music, cooking, and other classes, as well as providing administrative support. Other co-op volunteers help senior and homebound residents by shopping for groceries and delivering them for free to anyone living within five miles of the co-op’s stores. In addition, the local farmers’ market, events like Earth Day, the We ART the People Folk Art Festival, and a host of organizations involved with the homeless, youth, farming, and environmental issues receive co-op volunteer help. “People love our volunteers,” reports Robin Seydel of membership services. “We do well by doing good.”

La Montañita works with local growers to provide markets for their products and, in some cases, has even created markets by seeking a grower for produce such as red onions. Store mark-ups are lower for local foods, and the addition of point-of-sale signage combined with monthly newsletter articles profiling various local products has boosted local food sales from $1 million per year to $1.5 million. Smaller farmers like the fact that they are paid the day they bring in their food.

Seydel says that the co-op is also working to heal divisions between New Mexico’s farmers and environmentalists. Conflicts have erupted over water use and, to the dismay of Seydel, have led to the loss of prime farmland. The co-op has sponsored a series of Common Ground summits that bring the various parties together in a discussion exploring conservation-based agriculture. “We are beginning,” Seydel says, “to renegotiate relationships.”

Youth apprentices

It was, in fact, the tight member relationship with local producers that helped save the Community Mercantile Co-op in Lawrence, Kan. When Wild Oats rode into town a decade ago, the co-op put a lot of effort into emphasizing its local farmer and local food connections. “This is how we are different,” says Jeanie Wells, the general manager. “The local producers saved us, they kept us afloat.” Wild Oats was unable to win over the community and closed its doors after four years. Wells observes that the co-op, now with 3,000 members, has been “growing like gangbusters ever since.”

The co-op has brought in Kent Whealy from Seed Savers for workshops, they’ve invited local farmers to meet their consumers, and they hold an annual community dinner—exclusively serving local food—that draws 250 happy diners. And they have established a foundation that’s working to advance nutrition understanding in the community.

This past summer, the foundation provided 500 meals to 22 hungry teenagers and support staff involved with a youth art apprentice program. The quality lunchtime meals are viewed as a way to fuel growth and change. Teens meet local growers, go on farm visits, and are introduced to chefs and caterers serving the Lawrence community.

The co-op and its foundation are also involved with K–12 in-school nutrition programming. In their work with retirement groups and at-risk teens, they again spread the “buy local” message.

Involvement backed by research

The Wedge Community Co-op in Minneapolis, Minn., has created its own research department to further member education and involvement. Says Barth Anderson, “When there are issues before the co-op that need to be digested in a savvy and nonhysterical way, that’s my job.” He notes that there’s always a core group of the co-op’s 11,000 members who are “very well informed and very engaged,” something he admits is gratifying. But many of the members have such busy lives that Anderson looks to foster opportunities for involvement when they are less busy.

One place where such discussions occur is on the grocery store floor. Consumers frequently ask questions of stockers or staff in different departments; other individuals often listen in and even join the conversation. Developing talking points on various topics has helped staff, especially for issues like mad cow and the Harvey v. Veneman organic lawsuit. “Our staff is amazing,” Anderson says. “They become our activists and can actually take it to the shoppers.”

This past June, Anderson organized an educational meeting for key staff from the Twin Cities’ vibrant co-op community to learn more about the organic pasture controversy and its relationship to the rise of factory farms in organic dairying. The Cornucopia Institute provided insights into the matter for the 40 people in attendance that included some of the Wedge’s farmer suppliers.

The Wedge also uses its web page to highlight consumer alerts and for testing ideas and interest in various issues. And each year, the Wedge awards up to $20,000 to nonprofit organizations promoting the co-op’s vision and values. A membership vote determines who receives the WedgeShare grants, following a screening process conducted by the co-op’s board. This funding is in addition to smaller donations made throughout the year to deserving nonprofits.

1 percent Wednesdays

Community Action Wednesday is the primary approach for member activism used by the Wheatsville Food Co-op in Austin, Texas. Dan Gillotte, the co-op’s general manager, says they “borrowed, tweaked, and improved” on a plan developed by the Outpost Natural Food Co-op in Milwaukee, Wis. Their Texas version awards 1 percent of store sales on Wednesdays for a full month to a designated local, grassroots nonprofit group. The groups are chosen by the membership at its annual meeting. During their month, the organizations receive exposure in the co-op newsletter and are invited to table in front of the store on Wednesdays.

The plan typically yields $600–$700 to the nonprofits. Gillotte notes that in-store sales have increased on Wednesdays from more shoppers, including visits from members of the featured local group. On weekends, other local groups table at the store entrance. “Most every weekend,” observes Gillotte, “some group is there.” Only political candidates are prohibited from tabling.

“Food to Bank On”

“We try to make our values visible,” says Ginger Oppenheimer of the Community Food Co-op in Bellingham, Wash. She points to their Farm Fund as the main method for supporting a sustainable economy. The co-op board earmarks $3,500 a year for the Farm Fund, and membership contributions add on another $3,000 to that total. In the past, the fund supported the farmers’ market and placing local produce in local markets. More recently, the fund is helping new organic farmers get their start by helping pay their efforts and partnering them with mentors.

This year, nine farmers are being supported by the Food to Bank On program. The previous two years, four and six new organic farmers received aid, respectively. The aspiring farmers bring some of their food to five local food banks and a residential home for people living with AIDS. Farmers praise the co-op’s effort. “It was invaluable to our progress because it allowed us to work with production and crop schedules and have some guaranteed income during our first year in sustainable farming,” explains David Peterson of Double Rainbow Farm. “It allowed us to move from farming on less than an acre to working on a five-acre piece of land.”

With 10,000 members at the co-op, Oppenheimer indicates that activism varies from individual to individual, but what’s important is “living our values and making options known.” The co-op’s newsletter mirrors that philosophy, containing a diverse topical mix. As in other co-ops, designated groups receive a portion of a day’s sales—2 percent from the third Saturday of the month and averaging between $650 and $850. The groups receive additional exposure from a newsletter profile and a bulletin board display during their selected month.

Mark Kastel of The Cornucopia Institute understands the organizational value of such public exposure and co-op support. The organization received $539 from a similar group-of-the-month program at the GreenStar Cooperative Market in Ithaca, N.Y. The money benefited its organic pasture campaign and defense of organic family-scale dairy farmers. Says Kastel, “Just as important as the money were the petitions signed by co-op members in favor of strong organic rules. I was able to hand deliver their message to a critical meeting of the National Organic Standards Board in Washington, D.C. Such co-op activism truly has power.”

See other articles from this issue: #120 September - October - 2005