News Update From World Coop

It’s been a busy two weeks for me as regards Co-ops. Last Saturday, January 31, our co-op held a board and management retreat. We invited the Brattleboro Food Co-op Board President up to participate. Yesterday, February 7, the Brattleboro Food Co-op held a board retreat, and invited the general manger and board presidents from five regional co-ops (including me) to join them.
We’re writing up detailed notes from both events, but here are my initial overview thoughts.
First, all this inter-coop participation is fantastic. We all share a vision of a cooperative economy, fair trade, local food supplies, a humane workplace, etc. It is so thrilling to be in a room of colleagues with similar progressive ideas as the baseline for discussion. It’s a very hopeful environment.
A dominant background issue is a proposal on the table to merge several regional Cooperative Grocer Associations into a single National Cooperative Grocer Association (NCGA). This cooperative entity would be a business services and trade group for it’s members. It would offer services such as a national purchasing program, to leverage our combined buying power for better pricing and terms. As a trade group, a single voice speaking for our members would unify and make coherent our business goals to both government and consumers.
To get a sense of the scale, if the proposal is approved, the new NCGA will represent 300 cooperative grocery stores totaling over 400,000 member-owners (consumers), with annual sales of over $625 million. That would make us, as a virtual chain, the second largest grocery chain in the US – behind Whole Foods and ahead of Wild Oats. Also realize that many people shop at Co-ops without becoming members, so the consumers “touched” by co-ops is somewhat larger. Our co-op has sales to members of around 77%, which is quite high in comparison to other co-ops. Some are as low as 40%.
These stores, and their members, are interested in many things, but the broad spectrum includes safe, healthy food; multiple bottom lines of profit, social responsibility and ecological sustainability; fair trade with partners; a living wage for employees; higher standards of customer service; community creation, support and participation; and strong educational programs (as opposed to marketing efforts). Any one organization may weight these issues differently, and have additional items on the list (I’m working from memory) but this is the general thrust of the mindset. Detailed market research has been done, which I’m not at liberty to share, but this “enlightened consumer” currently represents a fringe of society, but we expect that concerns of balance and fairness to continue to gain traction. I’m sure Candida is laughing at us, but we continue in our work.
It is extremely unfortunate, but helps our cause, that mad cow disease has people worried about the beef supply; mercury levels have people worried about the ocean fish supply; farmed fish have their own problems; and Asia is destroying literally millions of chickens to try to quell the spread of avian flu. Beef, fish and chicken are the three dominant sources of protein. Other than tofu and nuts (you have to eay a lot of nuts to get enough protein) there’s nothing left. Protein is a critical component of human survival. So where is your protein coming from these days? My recommendation is to buy the most local food you can, as often as you can. Buy from people you trust, not based on the lowest price.
There’s more to write in the future.