Preparing Our Future

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Articles on shaping our future and an annual conference with the theme “Forward!” suggest that food co-ops continue to look ahead and to plan major improvements. Expansion to more neigh-bor-hoods and cities is a continuing wave, leading to additional stores and expanded services, more member-owners, and stronger local economies. 

There is enormous potential for growth in all of these aspects of cooperative development. Community-owned food co-ops are tapping into a set of urgent needs and strongly held values: trustworthy sellers and enterprises; high-quality food and farms that remain farms; good jobs and trade that more often stays in the local economy; transparency and democracy. These aren’t elite notions, they’re down-home propositions. 

Look around at the deep damage being done through extractive agricultural and energy industries, unaccountable multinational corporations, toxic military activities, and the financiers who befriend them all. It is clear that clean food and democratic action will be needed even more in the near future.

Community-owned enterprises, such as cooperatives, add resilience to local culture and economies by promoting fair exchange and stable business relationships. Food co-ops, for example, are strongly supporting local producers and thereby strengthening the local food economy, while laying the groundwork for more cooperatives offering more services to more owners. Preparation for the future, done well, deepens resilience by bringing to the surface the ends and strategies that stake-holders can envision and support. Preparing such strategies will make it much more likely that our equitable values and democratic institutions will survive. 

Examples in these pages of extending the
co-op’s impact and building a more resilient future include Kalamazoo, Mich., where People’s Food Co-op has taken on management of the city’s farmers market; and Port Townsend, Wash., where The Food Co-op has hired a local cultivator of food sources and grower relationships. These food economy shoots often take years of cultivating and thinning before achieving ripeness; yet seedlings nurtured now can only enhance future prospects.

The ongoing expansion of food cooperatives supports active debate on the relative merits and expectations of different development paths. This edition’s report from Food Co-op Initiative lists those paths, to be discussed at a co-op development Summit in June. 

New food co-ops are bringing added diversity and excitement to our sector, with up to 10 new stores opening annually. Beyond local resilience, opening more co-op stores also adds to our collective resources and abilities. For startups, the “Four Corners in Three Stages” offers a useful framework for understanding those resources, grouping them into vision, talent, capital, and systems, with each of these elements going through three stages of organizing, feasibility/planning, and implementing.  

The existing avenues for food co-op development presented in the Food Co-op Initiative report offer eight variations, but they appear to me to boil down to four paths: co-op startups, conversions, existing store growth, and existing co-ops opening additional stores. Interestingly, the stages of organizing, feasibility/planning, and implementing also appear in these other scenarios for food co-op growth. 

“Organizing,” the first of these stages, may not seem to describe the plans of a well-established, successful co-op that wants to open another store. Yet member-owner recruitment and business/community relations need sincere and dedicated outreach in the new neighborhood or city. There have already been a couple dozen expansions to multi-store cooperatives—enough that clear lessons can be offered. Jeanie Wells focuses concretely on preparations “from the inside out.” 

There’s also a new framework, Four Pillars of Cooperative Governance (Part 1 in January–February 2014, Part 2 in this issue). This is not intended only for the co-op board of directors, although that is the focus of the practical application presented here. Four Pillars is a model covering everyone’s roles and behavior within co-ops. For established co-ops, strengths and weaknesses characterize each of the essential stakeholders: member-owners, board, general manager, and staff. And for each group, the four pillars that uphold a successful co-op are: teaming, democracy, strategic leadership, and accountable empowerment. 

Three stages, four paths, four pillars… It’s all within the global five-point “Blueprint for a Cooperative Decade” with strategies around participation, sustainability, identity, legal frameworks, and capital (www.ica.coop/en/blueprint). Forward! 

See other articles from this issue: 171 March-April 2014