As the summer Sun began scorching in earnest, I traveled to Philadelphia for the 56th annual conference of the Consumer Cooperative Management Association (CCMA). That’s the group that networks 128 of America’s food coops.
Owned independently by their local citizens in cities and towns across the nation, food coops are a major web of market nodes in the overall good food movement. For decades, food coops have provided a principal connection between families who want clean, chemical-free food and the stalwart network of sustainable organic farmers who provide it.
In mid-June representatives from the independent coops gathered together to talk, to walk, and to make a declaration concerning coops, corporations, and the context of our era. Here are some of my notes from the gathering.
Marion Nestle, long-time nutrition activist and author of several influential books including Food Politics, gave a keynote address on the final day of the conference. “There is a global food crisis right now,” Nestle told us, “with one in seven people on the earth already hungry.” It looks as if the global food crisis will continue to intensify in the years immediately ahead. She said we would likely see the crisis play out not just with overseas famines, but also domestically in cost, volatility, availability.
The mounting clouds of the global food crisis that Nestle pointed out to us have been becoming increasingly evident in news stories, such as this July example from Bloomberg Business Week: Drought Stalks the Global Food Supply.
“Hunger and malnutrition are social problems,” Nestle told us, “and that is one of the reasons why food coops are so important. Coops are a viable alternative to Big Food. Because coops are both community-based and value based, they make a point of selling clean, healthy, nutritious food.”
Michael Sansolo, a marketing consultant, also gave a keynote address. Sansolo said that conventional markets see that the movement now and over the next 30 years is toward organic, sustainable foods. Food coops have led the way for the last 40 years, but now profit-focused food corporations are in the mix and bringing their values to bear. As the NY Times reports, organic food has become “a wildly lucrative business for Big Food and a premium-price-means-premium-profit section of the grocery store.”
The theme of Sansolo’s talk was that there are, in his view, three central challenges now faced by everyone who is involved with the market for food: economics, demographics, and technology.
During the Q & A session after Sansolo’s talk a man rose to urge that he add a fourth challenge to his presentation: the natural environment. The environment is changing fast, the man said. Along with economics, demographics, and technology, coops had best take that that reality into account.
In his remarks Sansolo said that the notion of community has changed radically with technology in recent years. The face of America is shifting. It is already way more diverse. Also, we are seeing in all economic sectors the rise of women. Women are stepping into leadership roles, especially in the food sector. He advised that food coops and other initiatives actively reach out to a younger, multicultural base. “That’s where the future is,” he said.
Ben Franklin initiated the first coop in America back in 1752 right in Philadelphia, the city where we had gathered 260 years later to size things up, and make plans for going forward cooperatively toward meeting a triple bottom line of economic, environmental, and social benefit.
A common experience for participants in the coop conference, and one I certainly experienced this year, is the realization that my local coop in Lincoln, Nebraska — Open Harvest — is but one node in a wide and growing network of food coops in North America and around the world — continuing to make creative progress as ethics-based businesses.
Another strong wave of coop development is currently underway. At the conference we heard that about 300 new food coops that are trying to get it together this year. However, Marilyn Scholl, a consultant with the CDS Consulting Coop, told me that if 20-30 of these new coop initiatives make it and actually establish themselves, that will be a strong outcome.
Colombia University professor Dr. Gary Dorrien has defined cooperatives as the foundation of economic democracy. They “extend the values & rights of democracy into the economic sphere…and create environmentally sustainable economies.”
Paul Hazen, former President and CEO of the National Cooperative Business Association and now ED of the Overseas Coop Development Council, commented that we are at a moment of profound consumer unrest and searching.
“Many are recognizing,” Hazen said, “that coops are a better kind of corporation…Right now the ‘free market’ is not meeting the needs of the people for clean, healthy, affordable food. That is where coops fill an important niche, because coops are value-led businesses. The economic and political momentum is swinging in our direction…Coops are a key to attaining food security.”