It may surprise most people to know that during the month of January, farmers have already started planning the upcoming season’s crops and ordered seed. Thus, things are set in motion that will take the better part of a year to get that luscious heirloom tomato into your mouth.
Many of our food co-ops have done their part to support farmers bringing these unusually delicious tomatoes to market. Season after season their arrival is a heralded event, the fulfillment of a pact made with the farmer, retailer and eager consumer. The heirloom tomato’s revitalization in the last decade parallels the burgeoning development of a local sustainable local food system.
Community ownership and food cooperatives’ unique relationship with consumers motivate taking leadership. A conversation has begun in food co-ops about what it means to develop a sustainable food system—one that meets the three goals of sustainability—that will reinforce our local economic and environmental values as cooperators and food retailers, and perhaps make our food more secure.
Loretta Norris is a CDS produce specialist with 15 years experience as former produce manager at Willy St. Co-op. She assists retailers with increasing produce sales and profitability, strengthening teamwork and labor productivity. Norris also works with food co-ops to build a local edge of quality and sustainability by building strong mutually beneficial relationships with regional farmers. Norris created a workbook that helps department managers organize a strong local buying program.
She notes there are “numerous ways to be a good food citizen,” but like most everything having to do with retail, systems development is critical. Much of the current activity around creating a sustainable food system in co-op retails has come from the grassroots, from individual produce managers and farmers who not only want to produce and sell local foods, but who do so in a spirit of making a greater social and economic impact. Norris has helped food co-ops adopt management practices that help focus and organize this effort.
There is tremendous potential at the retail level to develop and fine-tune practices that help contribute to the overall structure of a sustainable food system. Norris advises looking at internal operations and marshalling greater organizational resources to help manifest a strong foundation for this vision.
- Put resources into building tools that help organize data for store departments.
- Be disciplined in applying what you’ve learned into building a strong program.
- Create buying guidelines for departmen tmanagers that support sustainability.
- Educate staff and inform consumers about the benefits of their food buying choices.
Andy Johnston is produce manager at Willy St. Co-op in Madison, Wisc., a co-op that has put in place strong local buying systems. He sees how his co-op and his department’s efforts have made an impact on developing a local sustainable food system. “It has helped us grow our business and helped farmers get to where they are too,” he said.
From the start, food co-ops have had a competitive edge with their buy local campaigns—doing the hard work of forging those relationships and bringing the benefits to co-op members and customers. That used to be the case for organics, until corporate interests took a giant bite out of co-op market share, stripping its “ownership” from the food co-ops that supported it first. Kevin Edberg, CDS’ executive director, finds that to be a disturbing trend, one that could play out in the same fashion for “local,” unless cooperators make a choice to take a leadership position on a more integrated and strategic plan and put resources into creating it.
Edberg said, “We need to invest in our long term competitive value through greater cooperation.” By working with groups of farmers through producer co-ops, he thinks food co-ops will have even more power to effect change than taking a one farmer at a time approach.
He points to cooperation as a “superior position” because mainstream competitors will never be able to claim “co-op” as a competitive advantage like they could organic or local. Consumer-owners compel their co-ops to emphasize community and integrity, and this is the food co-ops’ greatest marketplace value. Food co-ops put more effort into thinking broadly about the sustainability of today and tomorrow, not just what is profitable in the short term.
Edberg points to the introduction of Country Natural Beef, a cooperatively produced natural beef from Oregon, through CDS’ Food Alliance Midwest into the Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis, Minn. He envisions CDS working with more food co-ops to bring these win-win co-op marketing matches together. “We need patient partners, like food co-ops, who are willing to build this network.” Through cooperatives working together cohesively, a truly sustainable food system based on the interests of consumer-owners and farmer-producers, not corporate interests, could develop.
Lori Zuidema, director of business development at Co-op Partners warehouse (owned by the Wedge Co-op), agrees that strengthening these links will bolster not only co-ops, but how food eventually makes its way to the consumer. “When you focus your efforts, it naturally makes you better at what you do,” she said. From her angle, moving toward greater integration could serve co-ops and their customers well.
“Yet, there’s a strong value in keeping produce managers linked with farmers. Consumers like it and it’s important that closeness is there,” Zuidema said.
She also said farmers themselves do business many different ways, selling direct to stores, doing farmers’ markets, going to wholesalers or offering Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares, depending on what works best for their situation. Thus she thinks a “more diversified and flexible system” could address some of these challenges while maintaining the trust and integrity inherent in strong local relationships.
At Seward Co-op Grocery & Deli in Minneapolis, produce manager Travis Lusk hosts an annual CSA fair and buys from dozens of local farms every year, as well as making it a priority to purchase from Co-op Partners warehouse. His practices are a reflection of that diversification, and Lusk says those buying activities firmly support Seward Co-op’s economic and social mission.
Through further strategy and planning, Edberg and Zuidema think co-ops can get more of what they want in sustainability and efficiency.
“You can’t get all you need from local farms, but the connection with the farmer is still important, even if it’s not a direct relationship,” Norris said. By looking at ways food co-ops can make win-win producer relationships better, farmers, consumers and co-ops will benefit. “If we want the next generation to have a sustainable food system we need to make conscious choices about where our food comes from today.”