By Alex Gyori
Fresh off the plane from cold and wet St. Paul, MN, I nonetheless return inspired by the enthusiastic and energetic proceedings of the spring meeting of the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA). Translating that excitement into words on paper may be nearly impossible, but I would be hugely remiss not to try.
The spring meeting represents for me the whole food co-op movement. The early natural food buying clubs that mushroomed up independently all over the country 40 years ago followed the pervasive logic that good nutrition was a critical need, but many disbanded or were transformed into storefronts as the popular groups grew unmanageably large. Storefronts were not always effectively run, unfortunately, resulting in the demise of many. Help that was germane to the fledgling natural food co-ops was scarce, despite a number of existing resources, including the National Cooperative Business Association, the National Cooperative Bank, and the North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO), to name a few. In the early ‘80s, the Consumer Cooperative Management Association (CCMA) emerged as a leading event that provided a way for food co-ops to expand professional capacity, and it continues today as an annual three-day conference that attracts as many as 500 enthusiastic cooperators.
More resources tailored to food co-ops soon appeared. The University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives sponsored the Cooperative Management Institute, which provided relevant learning to a large number of food co-op staff. Although the institute is no longer around, a number of skilled instructors from that program created the Cooperative Development Services (CDS). One of Brattleboro Food Co-op’s former board presidents, Mark Goehring, has enthusiastically pursued a career in cooperative improvement working with this group.
High level cooperative education is more available now, as well. In Canada, a nation with a highly developed cooperative sector, St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, has recently established a Masters of Management for Cooperatives and Credit Unions. Quite a few U.S. cooperators have earned degrees from there. Nearer to home, Erbin Crowell, the executive director of our Neighboring Food Co-op Association, has been teaching a course in cooperatives at UMass Amherst. His course fills up fast!
Overseas learning opportunities exist as well. Many American food co-op staff and board members have observed and studied the highly developed cooperative sectors of Mondragon in the Basque region of Spain, La Cooperativa in northern Italy, and the cooperatives in Great Britain, the birthplace of the modern cooperative movement.
At a CCMA conference in the very early ‘90s, John Mackey, the founder of Whole Foods, was speaking to the assembled cooperators. He shocked the listeners with his message: he would build a store next to every food co-op and put us out of business! The immediate and resolute response by food co-ops was, “Not so fast, Mr. Mackey!” Ten regional cooperative grocers associations formed soon after, and within the next few years, those associations organized into a loose federation of independent associations. It did not take long to reorganize yet again into a single cooperative, the National Cooperative Grocers Association.
NCGA today is a cooperative brain trust that has taken food co-ops light years beyond the John Mackey jolt. Its first big achievement was an effective wholesale supply agreement with United Natural Foods (UNFI), the major supplier for most food co-ops. Moving determinedly ahead, NCGA has overseen creation of a range of resources that includes co-op-branded food-processing supplies, professional laundry-service agreements, credit-card processing, centralized payables processing for the UNFI supply agreement, and one of their latest initiatives, “Co-op U”, a broad curriculum of technical assistance featuring training programs for staff and managers in deli, grocery, wellness, IT, fresh foods (produce, meat, cheese, etc.) – just about every aspect of a well-run food co-op. In keeping with the expressed concerns of food co-ops around the country, NCGA has also become a major player in helping organic remain organic, maintaining momentum in GMO-labeling efforts, and advocating for (or against) many other food-related issues. Most recently, NCGA established a Development Cooperative to provide direct support for expansions, distressed organizations, startups, and conversion of existing, privately owned food stores into co-ops.
Brattleboro Food Co-op, soon to celebrate its 40th year, has been a stalwart participant in the rapidly expanding, thriving cooperative movement so vital to the health of our communities and our planet. It is a truly inspiring time to be part of it!