Mobilizing for Organics and Conservation

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Trouble warnings are no longer mere prediction. Yet good news can be found. Let’s review some encouraging trends in a shaky context.

Strong co-op services generate member and shopper loyalty. Despite a declining economy, many food co-ops are maintaining positive sales growth (beyond 5 percent inflation). Such co-op trends exceed same-store figures in most mainstream grocery competitors and in Whole Foods, which recently reported its worst such numbers in company history. Co-op members and shoppers recognize when the co-op has competitive pricing plus the best selection and service.

Cooperative grocers may be more challenged to reach beyond the core to less frequent shoppers. Maintaining store sales margins also may be difficult, since recent comments suggest that higher margin sales in the store periphery (deli, fresh produce, meat and seafood) are not growing as strongly as sales in the center store bulk and grocery departments. Prudently, people are cooking at home more, stocking up on basics, buying sale items, using more coupons.

Higher prices make organic food sales vulnerable in a recession, yet organic remains an area of growth and a key niche for co-ops. Organic agriculture is gaining public support for its health components, its contributions to local food security, and its comparative reduction of carbon emissions. Soon, organics will also be embraced for growing food with less fossil fuel.

Public recognition of organic advantages includes ongoing research findings (summaries at www.ota.com, www.rodaleinstitute.org, and www.organic-center.org www.organic-center.org ) and options for the USDA. But organic growth faces major supply barriers as well as institutional opposition. Implementing the support for organic programs in the 2008 farm bill, totaling less than one percent of commodity production subsidies, will depend on appropriations that have not yet been approved (www.sustainableagriculturecoalition.org). In support of farms not arms, mobilizing co-op members for organics and conservation will be needed.

What is the co-op advantage? In a recession environment that will force many other retailers to close, co-ops can find value in examining member needs and motivations. In this edition, Marilyn Scholl of Cooperative Development Services discusses why, on these questions, one size does not fit all.

For improving store operations, Mead Stone, in a homegrown example from River Market Co-op, discusses standards identified through co-op data sharing. Additional reports cover strengthening store meat departments, by Robert Duncan of Sacramento Co-op, and improving services for managers of perishables departments, by Chris Ryding of the National Cooperative Grocers Association.

Larger considerations comprise our cover section on sustainability. In the previous issue we reported on changing accounting standards that threaten co-op balance sheets. For co-ops as well as the economy at large, the deeper issue is not liquidity but solvency. How will co-ops sustain themselves financially? Who will supply the capital? Can financial obligations be met and investments made?

Chuck Snyder of the National Co-op Bank offers perspectives on cooperatives in the current economic crisis. Presumably, cooperative opportunities will increase as private capital fails. Co-ops are fundamentally a form of democratic ownership, requiring owner capital to maintain and expand business operations. Are you fully utilizing the elements of cooperative solidarity? David Thompson reviews outstanding examples of building cooperative capital.

Russ Christianson contributes a Sustainability Scorecard that enables your business to evaluate its practices and goals in economic, social, and environmental impacts.

These contributors and the current crisis point to political and social action beyond the co-op. Moreover, the cooperative principle of concern for community doesn’t refer only to the immediate neighborhood. Communities and government at all levels are challenged to redirect resources-to programs and infrastructure for food, energy conservation, housing, and health services. Cooperatives can contribute to solutions.

See bailoutmainstreet.com for a public statement that cooperatives could support in the name of democracy and transparency. Remember, the new federal administration won’t offer significant grassroots relief without continuing public pressure.

Meanwhile, a temporary decline in oil prices masks predictable supply declines as well as an overriding need to reduce carbon emissions. For a short summary, see Michael Klare writing on Alternet about the energy challenge of our lifetime: www.tinyurl.com/5sztal. www.tinyurl.com/5sztal And the best example of powering down to an organic and post-peak oil food system remains Cuba, an inspiring story filmed in “The Power of Community,” available at communitysolution.org. ?

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Dave Gutknecht is editor of Cooperative Grocer ([email protected]).

See other articles from this issue: #140 January - February - 2009