As President of our budding food co-op, I have the joy of helping to plant the roots of connection with other like-minded folks and groups in town, watering those connections with love for our vision of great food locally sourced, accessible to all, and as affordable as possible in a beautiful store that is warm and welcoming, and owned by our community where everyone can shop and anyone can become an owner.
I have recently met many folks who care about food justice, security and access at a two day workshop called, “From Charity to Solidarity.” The room was filled with people working hard to alleviate hunger in our area through food pantries, food banks, food trucks, food backpacks and education. We envisioned the future of Grand Rapids and saw a strong community of walkable neighborhoods with great food easily accessible. I was gratified to see my vision resonate with everyone else in that room. The idea of a food co-op where we are all co-owners of our food store also resonated with folks in that room. We left that workshop ready to move into action to make our visions reality.
So how does our project help move our community away from charity addressing food insecurity to solidarity with those who experience hunger? A food co-op is owned by anyone in our community who wants to join us. If you are low income, we have a Food for All share of $25 for every low income owner household and a robust scholarship fund for anyone who needs to use it. We trust our owners and don’t ask for verification of income. Our co-op includes everyone as equal owners and contributors to building our store. We are constantly growing our connections with communities of color and exploring together the ways our store can meet their needs and welcoming them as co-owners of our store. Each one of us has the same equal vote.
We have done all we can to break down any financial barriers and our task now is to come together to actually own that vision and buy our shares in this food co-op and bring our voice to the table so our vision will become a reality. Your community owned food co-op will open sooner if you, who see the vision and want it to become reality, move in concrete ways to build up our root system of support. Become a fellow owner, encourage your friends to become fellow owners, and then spend a little volunteer time working on the project with the other great folks who share your vision.
Imagine the benefits to our community that our food co-op will bring. Our local food system will be supported, nourished and strengthened. Our community will be more connected and empowered to make needed changes. Your home will have great food and you will feel healthier and more energetic. And you will have a place to gather with friends and family and share in the bounty of the Earth. I look forward to welcoming you to our co-op!
From the President, Linda Jones:
As I move into my first duly elected role as President of our beloved co-op, I want to celebrate with pride and gratitude all the work that our fellow cooperators have done to get us to this place and time. Because of their faithful work we have grown our co-op to eighty-seven members, created a very sturdy structure and process for getting our work done effectively by empowering our active volunteers,promoted our co-op all around the city, built our community on trust and transparency, and are moving ever closer to opening our co-op grocery store.
From the first time I voiced the idea of bringing a co-op grocery store to central Grand Rapids, like minded and energetic folks have resonated with the idea and gathered together. Deborah Eid was there when I spoke up about a food co-op at a meeting of neighborhood organizers and if she hadn’t agreed that Grand Rapids needed such a store, I doubt that the idea would have gone any farther. We have been co-founders together in every sense of the word, sharing ideas, training, connections, and wisdom from our life experiences. I am sure our co-op is as vibrant as it is today because it was founded on this synergy which then spread to everyone else who got involved.
We started by having a series of study sessions to learn what a cooperative is and how food co-ops are built. One of our early attenders was Catherine Gage who has been on the Development Circle ever since and is now on the Top Circle. She has been our secretary, keeping excellent records of our meetings, keeping us all reminded of our to do lists, and doing important research. She has also led the Membership Circle.
Crystal LeCoy was with us from the earliest days and offered her experience starting a business from the ground up. She is now in Detroit doing great things there.
Chantele Longcore joined us and got our checking account and paypal accounts set up and made important contacts for us in the business world. She also hosted many circle meetings at her home. Billy Bennett got our incorporation papers filed with the state. Wojtek Nocon contributed his business experience. Mychelle O’dell attended anti-racism training with Deborah and I and helped clarify our structure and processes. Stephen Wooden presented our pitch to 5x5 night. Dylan Devries and Quinn Vollink were our foodies and helped develop our vision, mission and aims. Quinn is responsible for the phrase, “community awesomeness.” Ben Gibney took notes early on. Steve Arnouts contributed his knowledge of organic farming and did important outreach to the environmentalists in our city. He is responsible for the seed pencils we give out. Cathy and Bruce Odom offered their house for our meetings and hosted an early house party. Kim Crosby has been involved consistently since the spring of 2016 and has served on the membership circle offering her deep knowledge of the city and healthy eating.
Brian Smith also got involved in the spring of 2016 and developed our accounting system, served as our treasurer and led the Finance Circle. He also helped reach out to our city’s Black organizations and spent time volunteering with People’s Food Co-op in Kalamazoo to get a better idea of how grocery stores are run as well as volunteering at Seeds of Promise. His guidance and experience have been extremely valuable to guide us through our development phase. He continues to serve as our bookkeeper and is a member of the Finance Circle.
Nancie Jenner joined us in the fall of 2016 and developed our wonderful logo and produced all of our marketing materials and swag. She headed the Outreach Circle and produced our newsletter and monitored our website and Facebook page. She hosted our first house party as well as many circle meetings where we ate like royalty. Nancy is also still serving on our Top Circle.
Jason Herlands joined us in the spring of 2017. He has worked with the Outreach Circle, scheduling tabling events, setting them up, getting the volunteers, speaking at events and sharing his knowledge about communication. Jason is also still serving on our Top Circle.
Other folks have consistently served on our action circles.
Whitney Potter joined us in the summer of 2017. She is active on the Finance and Diversity Circles and has shared her knowledge of the food industry and hosting skills.
Carol Carr was active on the Finance Circle and offered great experience with grant writing, finance and writing bylaws.
John Hanson and his crew produced a wonderful promotional video for us and highlighted us at his Lamplighter festival.
Loren and Katie Sturris and Suz Edwards were stalwart outreach volunteers helping to table at many community events and showing up whenever they were needed.
Rachel Potter has been active on the Membership Circle and is leading our book group.
These are our wonderful founding volunteers, folks! I know you join me in thanking them all for their commitment to our vision, their work achieving our mission and aims, and their heart for our community. Since our co-op is strong and vibrant because of its member/owners, I can hardly wait to meet all the new member/owners who will be drawn to our project in the coming years and to welcome them into our growing community of cooperation, building this important institution in the life of our city. If you are feeling the call to get involved, we have new volunteer orientations every third Tuesday at 6:30 pm at Fountain Street Church, or simply send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to seeing you there!
This wise statement was made by a long-time co-op organizer. I think this is a profound statement and directly confronts a malady of our society today. We pretty much expect most things to come to us for free. We have free apps on our phones, we can access free news articles, we avoid taxes as much as possible. In our city, Grand Rapids, we have some very wealthy and generous donors who have helped build important venues and social services to revitalize our city and make it a very desirable place to live. So it is very easy to begin thinking that we don't need to invest our hard earned money back into the community to help it thrive.
There is a very subtle trap to this kind of thinking. It keeps us effectively living in a feudal economy. We begin to think that if the big donors aren't behind a project then it will never come to fruition. We rely on the foundations to make the needed changes for social justice. We can bask in their good works. And we are therefore dependents rather than actors. Co-ops are a powerful way to move us out of this feudal mindset and come together to make needed change ourselves. With our own dollars, our own energy and ideas, our own businesses we can envision and bring to fruition the change we want to see. I hope you will join us to bring the best food possible to central Grand Rapids where food access is most challenging. And maybe even think about starting other co-ops to make other much needed changes in our community.
We just got back from a wonderful weekend at the Circle Pines Center near Hastings, Michigan. This is cooperative retreat center located in the woods of central lower Michigan. We met with folks from other food co-ops around Michigan as well as folks from housing co-ops and worker co-ops. Folks came from as far away as Waterloo, Ontario and Durham, North Carolina. We had a very informative discussion of the current state of food co-ops with people who have been involved with food co-op management for years as well as people who are just starting food co-ops. We learned that there is a great deal of competition right now in the area of organic and natural foods, the very area that food co-ops developed! Now everyone is doing it! So what do food co-ops have to offer as the new, cutting edge niche? And perhaps more importantly to my rebel mind, why do the food co-ops always need to find a new niche? Why isn't our business model the dominant one and the "free" market capitalists the ones working around us? I hope these questions will generate some dialogue here. What are your thoughts? What do food co-ops offer today that makes us special? How can co-ops become a more important presence in the marketplace?
Here's the definition of capitalism: an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market. (Merriam Webster, emphasis mine.)
If our economy is based on private decisions regulated by a "free" market, then who is taking the waste and neglect into consideration? Who is taking into consideration the fact that the ones with money create the market to their advantage? Who is seeing the larger picture? We are seeing the limits of capitalism very clearly now. Capitalism's fatal flaw is the fact that it doesn't have a value system, it is amoral. It purports to regulate human greed by relying on a free market to keep it in check. Seeing the degradation of our environment, the quarter of our people who live in poverty, the widening wealth gap, and the push for deregulation of the very businesses that got us into trouble the last time, where is this "free" market? Under capitalism a "free" market is an unachievable ideal! What capitalism does instead is normalize greed, not regulate it.
Fortunately there is an alternative to capitalism that has been practiced by businesses for over one hundred and fifty years, and practiced informally for millennia before that. These businesses function not as capitalist enterprises but as cooperatives. Here's the definition: A cooperative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise. (International Cooperative Alliance, emphasis mine.)
Cooperatives nourish a free market and they have ownership. The difference is that they also have a value system and include and empower rather than exclude and amass. Cooperatives are owned by the people who use their services and are therefore controlled by a community, not a single individual. Their goal is to meet needs, keep the wealth in the community and offer meaningful work at good pay. Cooperatives bring people together, capitalism tears them apart. Capitalism pits one against the other while cooperatives nourish our better natures and allow communities to build businesses that support deep values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. Capitalism does not build true character, it simply teaches that those that have will get. Cooperatives educate their members in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others. All these values arise out of the fact that the business is built cooperatively by those benefiting from the business. Shared ownership can only work when the owners all understand the work of cooperation.
What if we started to view America as a cooperative enterprise? What if we thought of our taxes as going toward our common good the same way our shares in our co-ops go for our common good? What if we accepted that good government and wise regulation is a requirement to protect our country from harm, be it from external threats or internal greed the same way our co-ops develop structures and processes to create the most good? What if we accepted that a free market is only possible when everyone has an equitable way to participate in that market? What if we considered a way to include all voices in our decision making the way our coops do rather than the current winner-take-all and losers just get over it attitude? What if we trusted each other to have everyone's best interest at heart? How could that even be possible?
I believe it could be possible if cooperatives were the dominant business model. Working together to build a business that meets a community's needs trains the people involved in the very work that it takes to become a community. This is hands-on, project-based learning at its very best. Crafting a profitable business together is probably the hardest work there is and the most exciting because it is building up something precious, needed and real that is shared with others. In a capitalist business enterprise, the work is shared but the profits are controlled by the owner. What is the difference between that and the old feudal system? In a cooperative the work is shared and so are the profits.
I believe the time has come for cooperatives to get the attention they deserve. Business schools should start teaching this model of business on an equal footing with capitalism. Laws should reflect the value of cooperatives in our society and support their healthy development. They should become the norm and in that normalization, they will heal our democracy in the most profound way. Through the building of cooperative enterprises, we will learn how to be a community again, we will learn the work it takes and the rewards it offers. Deep values will be nourished and the human tendency toward greed will be replaced by the human tendency toward generosity. Cooperatives include and empower, just the things we need today.
Accomplishments 2016 GRFCI
Priorities for 2017
Top Circle: Collaboration with food co-ops nearby, use current grant money, board training
Diversity: Bolster diversity/reach out to all communities
Finance: Funding/grant partnerships, income accessibility/voice for all
Marketing: outreach and advocacy, grow membership
Membership: plan for membership growth, effectively engage volunteers
So we've had another election where the majority (or at least the majority of states) elected the President and other members of our government and the minority were left holding the bag. Half the country is jubilant and half the country is sad.
We're finding that there is an alternative model. Our co-op is practicing another way to do democracy. It's called Sociocracy. Through this model of organization, every voice is heard equally, elections are held by consent of everyone affected, new proposals to solve issues are crafted by everyone in the circle until everyone can consent. All our circles of engaged volunteers are in effective communication with the other circles so folks know what is going on throughout the organization. We are loving the community that this model of democracy is building! The best ideas can bubble up and the work gets done efficiently and effectively (for the most part!).
Currently the top circle (our development board) is crafting a program to make sure our neighbors on low or fixed incomes are able to become member/owners of our coop in a way that is affordable for them. Its called our Food for All program. More details to follow as we get them worked out.
We are three months into our membership drive and have 21 official member/owners. We are hoping to have 100 members by the end of the year so we can have our first official membership meeting and elect our first elected top circle. We have a very committed group of volunteers working on our action circles in the areas of membership, marketing, finance and diversity. Folks are hosting house parties and others are staffing tabling events around town to get the word out and encourage more member/owners. We are planning pop-up events and member/owner benefits with area farms and stores. If you want to get involved just let us know.
After we get a significant number of member/owners and we have the investment capital lined up from several sources including our members, foundations, government programs, commercial lenders and food co-op lending organizations, we will start looking for our store location. We hope to have the financing in order to build a 10,000 to 15,000 square-foot store. This will probably take about three years. We want our store to be a one-stop grocery store with plenty of parking and room in the aisles for the grocery carts. We hope to have a deli, hot bar, salad bar and a great place to eat and visit with friends and others in our community. Our food will be as local, as healthy, and as affordable as possible. We know that we are really building community through food and we want our store to be in a part of town that currently has food challenges. We want our store to be a warm and welcoming place for everyone in our town!
Help us build this dream by becoming a member/owner yourself. We welcome your comments and suggestions and look forward to meeting you at one of our events.