Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy (ECWD):
LEAF’s director, Gerardo Espinoza, attended the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy to speak at the Debt and Equity session for worker cooperatives. A veteran of the industry, he was pleasantly surprised to observe the growth of interest in alternative ownership structures over the past 6 years. The full schedule can be found here.
Consumer Cooperative Management Association (CCMA):
LEAF sent two representatives to this year’s Consumer Cooperative Management Association (CCMA) conference in Minneapolis. Nathan Hixson shares his thoughts on the experience.
“Cooperate to Differentiate”: CCMA Lessons Learned
By Nathan Hixson
Since 1957, food co-op managers, board members, and consultants have gathered for the annual CCMA Conference. Last month, food cooperators gathered in Minneapolis for an excellent three days of sharing best practices and exchanging ideas for creating a successful food co-op. Here are some of the principles and ideas we loved and want to spread:
Equality, equity, and liberation. These three concepts were discussed by Dr. Monica White, Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin, in a keynote address on food and racial justice. Equality describes each person having the same resources, while equity denotes each person having the resources they need in order to succeed. Ultimately, liberation is the crowning concept where systems are changed to remove barriers to success completely. Liberation exceeds tolerance or open acceptance and implies a proactive searching out and support of voices and populations that may be ignored otherwise. This could mean reviewing policies to encourage black or Latino community members to run for the Board of Directors. For some co-ops it may mean learning about an ethnic minority’s food preferences to stock those items in the store. It may mean learning about the religious holidays of minority groups to provide those employees who observe such holidays with the flexibility to do so.
CCMA Conference organizers put this liberation mindset to work by catering a lunch from Chef Sean Sherman, “The Sioux Chef,” who uses only indigenous Native American ingredients in his meals and desserts. His message is one of health and wholesome eating being found in the natural variety of grains, berries, and fish, as opposed to homogenous commodities like refined sugar.
“What does the food co-op of the 21st century looks like?” was a question frequently discussed, with no clear correct answer. From food co-ops partnering with online grocery delivery services to consolidation of food co-ops to achieve economies of scale, many potential solutions are giving food co-ops an edge to grow their impact and services. No specific idea works for all food co-ops, but it was clear those fulfilling their mission best had considered their market, their unique strengths, and how to partner well with other companies that complement the co-op’s activities.
Finding a path forward to compete in the decades to come will not be easy, as food co-ops across the country face intensifying competition from investor-owned grocers. More competitors are sourcing locally and offering exclusive access to certain local producers. More competitors offer organic, with more than 5% of all food sold last year being organic and Walmart being the largest organic food retailer. Food co-ops can hire locally and train employees as well as anyone, but excellent customer service is necessary to match food co-ops’ competition, it is not sufficient by itself to survive and thrive in today’s competitive natural or organic food grocery business.
What’s the one trait inherent to our food co-op DNA that cannot be replicated by big grocery chains or specialty natural food stores? Community ownership. A broad and deep understanding of the cooperative business model by members is essential. When members know the potential of the cooperative model, they want to contribute to fulfilling the co-op’s ends or mission. When they identify as a business owner with a financial stake in their community co-op, they see their grocery dollars circling back to themselves and their community.
Any business can hold community events, but a co-op’s community engagement can be unique. Those people benefiting from the co-op’s outreach and events can be the same as those deciding and running the show. A representative and involved board of directors is the key to a co-op that truly serves the community in which it operates.