Central Co-op Teach-Out! Reflection

Teach-Out! Reflection
Central Co-op, January 22, 2011, by Molly Woodring

With a new logo and a return to its original name, Central Co-op has reached a point in its existence where it makes no bones about being a co-op. So although many of us may struggle to remember to use the name “Central Co-op” over “Madison Market,” we couldn’t have picked a better time to visit the store and to learn about how they operate. As a new member-owner of Central Co-op, I was especially interested to learn more. In the particular corner of suburbia where I grew up, it was hard enough to find a grocery store with a decent natural foods selection, let alone a co-operative one!

So on a recent Saturday morning, I joined a group of other CAGJ members, co-op member-owners, and interested community members gathered in the converted apartment/community space above the store to discuss the question posed in this Teach Out’s announcement: “Can your cooperative grocery store be an agent and an ally in the struggle for food justice?”

Our guide in this exploration was Webster Walker, who heads up Community Outreach at the Co-op. We were also lucky to have AJ Hess, Produce Manager and chair of the Produce Issues Committee, stop by for a bit amidst a busy workday. She entertained us with fruit and veggie trivia, but also had had some great things to say about the co-op’s methods for sourcing produce locally.

As Webster filled us in on the history of Central Co-op, I was surprised to learn that they had narrowly escaped going out of business only a few years ago, despite what seemed to be continual growth. Currently able to boast 10,000 active members, the co-op is poised to pay off the last of its accumulated debt this coming September, and looks forward to having extra funding to put towards its other goals, such as facilitating community education and helping new co-ops get started.

Perhaps the reason I was so surprised to hear about the debt was because I was well acquainted with Central Co-op’s philanthropic efforts. They have named CAGJ as one of their Community Partners for several years now, and donate a minimum of 5% of their profits (but often quite a bit more) to both their community partners and other charitable causes. But as a member of the International Co-operative Alliance, this is simply part of their business plan.
We got the chance to experience this generosity firsthand when Webster announced that we, as Teach Out participants, would get the chance to collectively spend $100 on lunch in the store. We eagerly spread out among the aisles and returned to the checkout with handfuls of apples and pears, bulk bags full of chocolate goodies, cheese, bread, and much more. The mountain of food on the conveyor belt was more than enough to feed the group, but we were well under our $100 limit.

As we shared the bounty back upstairs, conversation turned to the role of labor in the sustainable food world. Central Co-op has recently signed a declaration of sustainability through the Food Trade Sustainability Leadership Association (FTSLA), which means they will monitor their performance in several key areas and “strive for continuous progressive improvement.” Though the declaration covers everything from waste and packaging to consumer education and energy use, labor was the issue that stood out to us. We discussed the difficulties in ensuring that fair labor practices are in place up and down the food chain, especially outside of the realm of those products normally included in fair trade programs.

What was heartening, though, was to realize that Central Co-op, even as a small business and through the years when it struggled with extreme debt, has managed to continue to pay and treat its workers (who are represented by UFCW Local 21) well. So the goal is not an impossible one.

But in order to bring labor practices into the spotlight, we need to speak up. As Webster reminded us, Central Co-op operates as representative democracy. Of those 10,000 active members, only a small fraction vote on policy changes or in the board of trustees election. But participation is crucial, and there are several ways to get involved. Voting is the easiest and most obvious, but member-owners are also encouraged to run for the board of trustees, to suggest new products, and to make their voices heard. There is a Product Issues Committee that meets monthly to discuss which products the co-op should or shouldn’t carry. Cooperative grocery stores CAN be our allies in the struggle for food justice, but by getting involved and “owning our ownership,” we can make them much stronger ones.

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