Co-ops Meet in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection

picture of ben franklin talking another image of a woman protesting with a sign
Ben Franklin (left) set the stage for the march to Liberty Bell Plaza to declare cooperative independence (right).
signs in a hallway

The 2012 Consumer Cooperative Management Association (CCMA) conference on June 14–16 brought over 400 hundred cooperators to Philadelphia for speakers and training, friendship and celebration. Local sponsor Weavers Way Co-op showed off its two stores and extensive urban farming and gardening collaborations. Co-op board members made up the largest part of attendees, along with many general managers and department managers, plus other co-op leaders, trainers, and consultants. Along with many veteran attendees, a large number of participants were experiencing the intense CCMA environment for the first time.

Notable cooperators including Ben Franklin himself addressed the crowd. We still benefit from the legacy of Franklin, a fountain of wisdom and wit and founder of the first of our cooperative insurance companies and volunteer fire departments—then called "mutuals" or "contributorships"—along with the first lending library and many inventions. At a CCMA march to Liberty Bell Plaza for a rally, Franklin read our "Declaration of Independence" (find the text at www.ccma.coop), while a downtown crowd read our signs in support of co-ops (photos at www.facebook.com/CCMAConsumerCoops).

Sponsors and speakers

Primary sponsors of CCMA are its parent, the National Cooperative Business Association, and conference planner Prof. Ann Hoyt and several support staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Some 16 other co-ops and institutions provided additional sponsor support, and nearly 30 scholarships were provided by the Howard Bowers Fund and the UW Urban Cooperative Initiative. Six co-ops sponsored the Bowers Fund this year: Weavers Way, Outpost, NCGA, Equal Exchange, Cooperative Grocer, and CGIN. Many other co-ops supported scholarships for future attendees by contributing to an extended silent auction held at CCMA, including several co-op logo quilts. A total of about $39,000 was raised, matching the previous year's contributions.

Along with a clever impersonator of Ben Franklin, attendees heard from other food and cooperative industry veterans. Michael Sansolo, former senior vice president at Food Marketing Institute, reminded the audience that our co-ops still lack ethnic diversity; he also urged us to utilize the rapid spread of social media for reaching our members and communities. Paul Hazen, former CEO of the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA) and now head of the U.S. Overseas Cooperative Development Council, reminded us that it was cooperation, not rugged individualism, that built the U.S. 

Food co-ops are the most numerous kind among members of NCBA, and Hazen's successor there, Liz Bailey, was also present and had penned the above-mentioned "Declaration." Howard Brodsky, a recent inductee into the Cooperative Hall of Fame (see link below) and current CEO of CCA Global Partners, stressed that excellence and retaining loyalty in our business fields requires that we provide the unexpected. Marion Nestle, author of books such as Food Politics and Safe Food and a professor at New York University in the department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, gave a blunt appraisal of the state of the corporate food supply and its weak regulation.

Urban renewal 

After years of decline and depopulation, Philadelphia is working hard to recover. From Mayor Michael Nutter (who taped a welcome message to CCMA and offered the quote in the title of my report) to neighborhoods with proliferating farms and gardens to the local congressman sponsoring legislation in support of co-op development, Philadelphians are seeing improvements and giving greater recognition to co-ops and their contributions to better urban health. 

CCMA bus tours visited several of those urban farms and gardens, and later attendees learned more about Weavers Way's significant support of these projects and its manifestation of strong concern for community. Many Weavers Way staff contributed to a well-run conference, in particular Margaret Lenzi and General Manager Glenn Bergman. We also visited Mariposa Food Co-op and a new food co-op in Chester and elsewhere viewed some of the many public murals that inspire pride of place and culture. Across from the conference hotel, and the scene of a windup party, was the Reading Terminal Market, established in 1892 and now housing 80 local food producers and shops.

Award winners 

Outstanding contributors to food cooperatives, nominated by peers and chosen by past award winners, are recognized each year at CCMA. 

Just a month before the conference, cooperators had honored and celebrated Bill Gessner, a longtime worker and trainer and consultant to food cooperatives, upon his induction to the Cooperative Hall of Fame. Images and details on these outstanding cooperators can be found at the Cooperative Development Foundation website: www.heroes.coop/post/category/inductees/2012-inductees.

At CCMA, food co-ops gave recognition for Cooperative Excellence to two outstanding retail societies: 70-year-old Putney Food Co-op and 40-year-old Ashland Food Co-op (AFC). 

AFC, one of the top 10 in sales among U.S. food co-ops, was the first grocer in Oregon to achieve organic certification for its entire operation. The co-op has over 7,700 owners in a city of 23,000. AFC is a leader in promoting organic farming and the campaign against genetically modified foods, models waste reduction and recycling, and provides extensive support of community organizations and other co-ops and trade associations. AFC, which was represented by its Outreach Director Annie Hoy, previously had been awarded recognition by Oregon Business Magazine, the Natural Products Association, the Oregon Organic Coalition, and by the Ashland Chamber of Commerce. 

Putney Food Co-op (PFC) also models great food and community involvement, and it serves as a vital center for its entire community. In a town of 2,500, the co-op has more than 1,000 active members. PFC supports a lively farmers market across the street from its store, and the co-op initiated a program to ensure that all local elementary schoolchildren have access to a nutritious snack every day. Despite the economic recession, the co-op has continued its sales growth and maintained profitability, issuing patronage dividends in each of the past three years. PFC also is an active participant in the local and regional cooperative economy. General Manager Robyn O'Brien received the Cooperative Excellence Award on behalf of the co-op.

The award for Cooperative Service went to Carolee Colter, whose nearly 40 years of work with food cooperatives has had huge positive impact in lifting their standards in human resource practices. Many managers and others testified to the professional and operating improvements their co-ops have achieved under Colter's guidance and advice in developing HR policies, hiring and evaluating of managers, conducting employee-satisfaction surveys, and through her numerous articles. Among the 26 years' worth of articles posted in the www.cooperativegrocer.coop archives, her contributions get more visits than those of any other author. -Following her early years of work in co-ops in the Seattle area, Colter established a national consulting practice and more recently joined the team at CDS Consulting Co-op.

Two awards were given for Cooperative Board Service. At Valley Natural Foods in Burnsville, Minn., Richard Ellsworth has provided service leadership for over 30 years. His contributions on the board of directors have helped this thriving suburban co-op grow through major expansions, professional board development, and excellent relations with its local business community. The co-op itself had received recognition previously for its excellence, and longtime General Manager Susan McGaughey enthusiastically supported Ellsworth's nomination.

At Eastside Food Co-op in Minneapolis, which opened in 2003, Leslie Watson has provided board leadership for 10 years, including three years as president. She has contributed pro bono legal work on the co-op's bylaws and articles of incorporation and loan documents, and has chaired the co-op's successful capitalization drives. Eastside's General Manager, Amy Fields, described Watson as an excellent communicator and planner. More recently, Watson joined with three area residents to form one of the country's first investment cooperatives, the Northeast Investment Cooperative. 

See other articles from this issue: #161 July - August - 2012
Files: