Cooperatives are member-owned, member-governed businesses that operate for the benefit of their members and, ultimately, their local communities. In co-ops, members pool resources to bring about economic results that are unobtainable by one person alone. Most simply put, a cooperative is a business voluntarily owned by the people who use it and operated for the benefit of its members. Today co-ops around the world, including the Brattleboro Food Co-op, are guided by seven principles that can be traced back 150 years to a small store in Rochdale, England. These principles that guide our work can be reviewed here: What is a Co-op? Of interest, as I write, is number six: Cooperation Among Cooperatives.
I was fortunate to witness and participate in this sort of cooperation at a gathering organized by the Consumer Cooperative Management Association. Held this year in Sacramento, California, CCMA is the national annual conference for food cooperative board directors, management, staff, sector allies, and, I might add, co-op nerds. Sector allies include organizations that consult with co-ops, advise co-ops, help to finance co-ops, or help to build co-ops. I met a number of sector allies who have worked with the Brattleboro Co-op over the years!
Conference speakers addressed common challenges, highlighted trends, and celebrated successful responses and initiatives. Workshops explored experiences and experiments, and problem-solving. Networking was rich and fruitful. It was very satisfying to be with so many people who care deeply for the value that co-ops bring to their communities. The sharing of insight and experience was inspiring.
The challenges facing consumer co-ops nationally are the same challenges that we experience here in Brattleboro: supply, transportation, rising prices, staffing, maintaining a building, rising competition, and consistent financial stability.
Some of the responses to contemporary challenges and opportunities are unique to individual co-ops’ locations and circumstances. One California co-op welcomed a co-op-based coffee shop into their building to mutual success. A Kansas co-op has opened a second store in an urban community in dire need of food access. Some of the responses are ones we are familiar with at BFC: member and stakeholder engagement, healthy staff relations, the cultivation of local food sources and support of local agriculture, long-term planning, and innovative programming.
There are no quick fixes for the challenges and trends that are impacting our co-op and others, but the CCMA is a significant and inspiring resource for us and the wider co-op movement. I came away with three important takeaways.
First, our co-op is doing quite well! The Brattleboro Food Co-op is known and respected in the world of co-ops. Wearing a BFC vest, I was stopped again and again by people who know us, have shopped with us, have been members, have worked with us, or who never come to Brattleboro without stopping in. Stepping out of Brattleboro into the wider co-op world gives one perspective that otherwise is hard to experience. Our doors are open to the community, we have a very fine staff, our shareholders are supportive, we have nutritious, responsibly-sourced food on the shelves, and our finances are in order.
Second, the pressure on co-op consumer grocery stores like ours is significant and unrelenting. Not every co-op makes it through. But we have engaged stakeholders, a dedicated Board, and an able General Manager. For the long run, we have our eyes on the future, in the short run, we spend our grocery dollars at the Co-op!
And third, we are not alone. There are networks of cooperatives that support each other. We who love co-ops are dedicated to the cooperative vision of local control and agency for our own lives and our communities. Our way forward will be guided by co-ops helping co-ops. We are in this crazy world together!
Our good luck: next year’s CCMA Conference will be in Portland, Maine. We need to get a crew there!
By Calvin Dame