School visits position co-op for world domination
It sounds remarkably like a late-night TV ad: “In just minutes a day, you can fulfill your outreach needs, please your core members, attract mid-level consumers, educate small children, and make your staff AND board of directors happy! But wait, there’s more—act now and you’ll also grab a market share of ‘The Co-op as the Authority on Everything’.” Fade to the address, a P.O. Box, naturally.
The really remarkable thing? Every word of it is true. It’s the Davis Food Co-op “Carrots in the Classroom” program.
From a 2001 commitment to visit just six classrooms to talk about food, our program has grown to provide effective outreach to some 90 public school classrooms each academic year. We offer lessons in cooking, art, and music, and emphasize food and cooperatives no matter what the topic. It’s a good program, and, quietly, the crown jewel in our plan to market our co-op as the “authority on everything.”
Is it effective outreach? If you judge by the children, yes! Many children bring their folks to Davis Food Co-op to see their art on our wall or to pick up ingredients for the recipe we handed out in their classes. Kids are delighted to run into instructors in the store—our cooking teacher in particular has attained near rock-star status among both parents and children in our area. Parents are pleased to receive requests for vegetable dishes (somehow all of our cooking lessons revolve around organic vegetables—go figure!) and it’s not unusual to receive calls or e-mails from parents asking for another copy of a recipe.
An enterprising co-op member and preschool teacher put her own spin on the program and recruited us to provide nutrition education to the parents of her students. We provided several one-hour “talk and snack” sessions at the nursery school, after parents were finished with work and dinner. We sampled products from the store, played a game of “which one of these products does not contain trans fat?” and answered very general nutrition questions (“What is a carbohydrate?”). At least one parent stopped by the store after each session and filled a trans fat-free shopping basket.
The city childcare coordinator felt that our activities indicated a deep interest in the fate of children. So she recommended us for appointment to a seat on the county-wide Children’s Alliance, an umbrella organization that brings together interested parties, including state, county and city officials, teachers, health providers, public service organizations, and business partners. Thus far the Alliance has produced a “report card” on issues facing children in our county, determined the broadest need, and is currently focusing on childhood obesity problems.
Attending the Children’s Alliance meetings somehow led directly to providing a healthy cooking demonstration at a County Health Department-sponsored conference on childhood obesity for educators and providers. Several slightly greasy business cards were exchanged, and DFC was promptly invited to another seat on a county commission, this one focusing on food issues, including land use, in Yolo County.
We’ve been invited to provide other direct adult education as a result of all this activity. The Food Bank, which serves some 60,000 residents of our county, has now asked us to provide cooking and nutrition education during food distribution “road shows” that they’re staging. On a smaller scale, we were invited to present a demonstration of bulk foods and bulk shopping tips for a group of women in transition from emergency shelters to public housing. It was a low-key, chatty event, which made it particularly rewarding to run into one of the participants shopping the co-op a week or two later.
With each step in this educational path, it became more and more obvious to us that education and outreach offered an unparalleled opportunity to position ourselves as the authority on everything. Although the plan grew organically from these activities, we took full advantage of this positioning opportunity as soon as we perceived it. Through these programs, we’ve made connections with local media, reminded our core co-op consumers that we really follow the principles that they’ve set down for us, given mid-level consumers more comfortable access to our organization, and formed bonds with other institutions that will serve us well.
It’s a marketing truism that reporters love kids and puppies, and Carrots in the Classroom is no exception. Not only does it garner us reams of free publicity—our local paper uses our press release on the program as regular filler—but, because the editor has school-age children, it created a direct bond between our store and her family. That makes it easy for her to call us when she needs a quote, a photo or even an article. Needless to say, we drop everything to fulfill her requests!
This illustrates one hazard of being the authority on everything: journalists will call you. We’re blessed in having several people who can “talk to the press.” The principles for doing so can be learned by anyone who doesn’t have an anxiety disorder. You need to find out to whom you are talking (as a start), what kind of story they’re doing, and what their deadline is. Then, if you are asked a question you can’t answer, you can calmly say when you’ll get back to them with an answer. Because you have the details on reporters’ needs and deadlines, you’re in a good position to help them.
Some questions cannot be answered (in this life) and even the authority has sometimes been stumped. But we’ve found we can often offer help, and the gratitude of journalists has proven useful. We are now a favored spot for “set shots” of produce by TV stations, whenever there’s any kind of story involving food. Everybody sells oranges, but it’s ours you see on local TV, and our shoppers (at least) often recognize that.
Our core consumers adore the Carrots program. Those with school-age children take care each year to make sure their child’s teacher books us early. Others stop to admire the art, pick up copies of the cookbook to send to relatives, or ask if they can arrange to come with us. It’s proof positive for all 7,000 of our member households that they’re shopping at “more than a grocery store.”
For mid-level consumers who aren’t sure they can trust “a bunch of hippies with a cash register,” the program is all about accessibility. We find that, after their kids come home excited and with a recipe for frittata, their parents at least think of us as hippies who can cook. They also have a name and face at the co-op and an open invitation to stop by to view the kids’ art or pick up ingredients. Additionally, we’ve had more than one call about medically mandated dietary recommendations from parents who met us through this program.
Institutional contacts can be as important as individual connections, because the former lead to more of the latter. For example, the Children’s Alliance decided to have a booth at the county fair and asked us to assist. After five fun-filled days of making organic ice cream, we’d made contact with hundreds of happy fair goers, each of whom walked away with a good, albeit sticky, vision of the Davis Food Co-op.
Do you have a Carrots teacher on your staff or in your membership? You won’t know until you ask! No one knew that Doug (for cooking) or Cathy (for music) would do well with elementary school kids. But both are experienced performers, and each quickly learned to play to a young audience. We found Ernie, our art teacher, running our front end—but with a past as a rural school teacher.
Is Carrots in the Classroom the answer to all your outreach needs? Probably not. However, because it has the potential to fulfill so many objectives, it’s sure to satisfy on several levels. And, like all good co-op things, it’s mad fun—in itself, enough reason to give it a try.
The “Carrots in the Classroom” cookbook and promotional flyer are available from the CGIN website or by contacting Julie Cross, [email protected], Davis Food Co-op, 620 G Street, Davis, CA 95616. *** At Davis Food Co-op, Julie Cross is education coordinator and Doug Walter is membership director.