Seed money: Community Reinvestment Fund (CRF)
Since 1992, over $224,000 in abandoned Owner equity has been repurposed to support grassroots change in our community. Under cooperative law, an Owner’s unclaimed equity can be retired and used to support non-profit organizations’ educational programming. When our Cooperative began utilizing this unique privilege, it also represented a major achievement in the Co-op’s financial stability, which by the early 1990s had escaped or recovered from many of the financial traps and challenges start-up food co-ops can face.
Benefiting most from this fund have been the many community organizations on Madison’s eastside as well as a growing number of projects throughout the city. In 1994, Red Caboose Day Care Center received a CRF grant to refurbish playground equipment on their playground. The Goodman (formerly Atwood) Community Center received funding to continue an exercise and nutrition program for older adults in 1997. In recent history, the fund has made possible two irrigation systems for community gardens in the Madison area where children are learning about urban gardening. A grant was made to assist in purchasing Troy Community Farm’s teaching greenhouse project last year and another grant made it possible to host cooking classes for those living with low vision through the Wisconsin Council for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and the list goes on. Today, we’re looking forward to another round of great ideas and ways to help our community as the CRF gears up for the 2010 awards to be announced in April.
Unlike the CRF, which is a once-per-year function, the CHIP program at the registers is also a 100 percent Ownerdriven fund working to improve the lives of our neighbors. It has been our privilege to participate with Community Shares of Wisconsin to assist in raising funds for 65 local non-profit organizations throughout the year. As a matter of course, cashiers ask each person as they’re checking out if they’d like to “CHIP.” If the shopper says yes, one percent of the total sale is added to the amount due and the one percent is electronically transferred to an account held by Community Shares of Wisconsin. Through this effort our Owners and other shoppers collectively contributed over $100,000 in 2009. Well done!
Sponsoring events in our community (particularly through the contribution of food) is fun and easy with so many festivals, fairs, benefits and concerts on Madison’s east side and the larger metropolitan area. We know the hard work organizers put into producing these fundraising events that bring people together because of common beliefs and interests or just to dance to great music. Our hope is to boost their efforts. Providing healthy, local and/or organic food at an event comes naturally, but we also realize this could be someone’s first introduction to what we stand for without having to come to the store.
Marquette Neighborhood Association season
We kick off each summer by sponsoring The Waterfront Festival which starts the season with a rich mix of international and local musicians during a weekend of live music, food and fundraising along beautiful Lake Monona. July’s La Fete de Marquette, our neighborhood’s newest festival and themed after Bastille Day, extends our chance to celebrate independence in an alternative way. French-themed live music tops the bill. Before the kids go back to school, the Willy Street neighborhood flies into action at the Orton Park Festival, another three-day festival drawing an eclectic menagerie of local and international music talent to the stage.
Madison’ oldest street fair, the iconic Willy Street Fair, brings thousands onto the pavement and parking lots each September to experience this phenomenon. In addition to providing major support for this and other Marquette Neighborhood Association fundraisers, Willy Street Co-op has traditionally offered our own selection of delicious prepared foods as a vendor at the fair. The Co-op is not responsible for organizing this fair (a common misconception), but fortunately the outstanding coordination skills of Bob Queen and Gary Kallas have given us so much to be thankful for during this summer ritual. In providing this level of support for these and other community celebrations, organizers have returned the pleasure by producing solidly entertaining and expertly presented events.
Food for Thought Festival
Another autumn ritual has been established at the Food for Thought Festival, coordinated by REAP Food Group. This Madison festival, which happens each September, was designed to celebrate and promote local foods and Willy Street Co-op has enjoyed a role in sponsoring this festival since its inception.
The Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center’s Pie Sale during Thanksgiving week gives life to a labor of love for an all-volunteer cast of residents who gather to prepare and deliver these delicious pies. With funding from Willy Street Co-op to purchase fresh ingredients and supplies from local vendors and family farms, thousands of sour cream apple and Louisiana sweet potato pecan pies are then sold through the Center or at the Willy Street Co-op, which helps to sustain the indispensable neighborhood resources that Wil-Mar provides every day.
Eastside Farmers’ Market
The Willy Street Co-op-sponsored Tuesday Eastside Farmers’ Market was a dream made into reality through the creativity and diligence of Amy Miller (Co-op owner), Rink DaVee (owner of Shooting Star Farm), and Laurie McKean (the Co-op’s former Member Services Manager) who all saw the potential for a new farmers’ market on the eastside and proposed their idea to the Willy Street Co-op Board of Directors to provide financial support. There was little hesitation by the Board, so a five-year commitment was made to underwrite the market. Originally finding few options to locate the market, organizers eventually secured an abandoned field on Ingersoll Street which, after days of volunteer work and a costly remediation treatment to address toxins in the brown field, was eventually approved for use by the Department of Natural Resources. We have continued to manage the market and now that it is entering its ninth year, we are handing over management to the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center. Their well-shaded parking area will bring a sigh of relief to farmers who have suffered the withering effects of direct sunlight on their fresh vegetables each week at the old location. Now shade, plenty of parking, a children’s play area and free access to indoor bathrooms will surely enhance the experience for those who rely on the Tuesday afternoon market. Willy Street Co-op will continue to commit financial and administrative support for the market in their new location. So, look for the opening of the 2010 Eastside Farmers’ Market season on Tuesday, May 11th in the parking lot of the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center, at the corner of Jenifer and Brearly Streets from 4:00pm to 7:00pm.
Another category of giving is our active and ongoing donations budget. Unlike major sponsorships, which are planned a year in advance, the donations budget is used to assist local schools and organizations in fundraising by providing either food or gift cards to be used as prizes at their events. Over $4,000 in donations are made each year to a long list of groups that are equally invested in caring for our community and share many of our goals as an organization.
The Willy Street Co-op mission fuels our readiness to assist other cooperatives or would-be cooperative efforts. The most recent large-scale effort to support another co-op was focused in nearby Stoughton at the Yahara River Grocery Co-op, which had some early organizational issues and requested our help. To address their immediate needs and offer administrative oversight, Assistant Store Manager of Operations, Wynston Estis’s time and talent was “loaned” to their Co-op for several months. During that time, she developed systems to support profitable operations for the start-up grocery co-op.
Our experiences in Stoughton have given us valuable new insight on best practices for start-up grocery co-ops, which is useful when addressing the several requests we receive each year from people around the country and the world seeking advice or information about how to start a co-op in their community. It’s a pleasure to hear from so many enthusiastic new cooperators and we readily provide connections to the many valuable resources available, starting with the University of Wisconsin Center for Co-ops (uwcc.edu) and their helpful resources for starting a co-op of any kind.
When it comes to choosing which products to sell in our store, locally grown is the most important goal we can achieve. At our Co-op, “local” is defined as grown or prepared within a 150-mile radius of the Capitol building or grown/made in Wisconsin. During the peak of growing season, we can report that nearly 90 percent of the our produce is locally grown. Over the last several years we’ve seen a significant increase in the number of packaged and other types of local products and in all we can report nearly 144 local vendors and over 1,500 individual products among our selection.
The Co-op’s mission outlines our directive to continually provide education around foods and the cooperative model for our Owners and the larger community. Especially for those who may not have access to the goods and services we offer, we reach out to communities throughout the Dane County area by presenting lectures and discussions at meetings, conventions, health fairs and classrooms.
Education in our store happens in many ways, not the least of which is our active Community Room classroom curriculum. Talented chefs share their expertise by creating fabulous foods, and imparting cooking techniques or money-saving food preserving tips. Most classes are moderately priced or free. Wellness events are also held each month for Owners to provide information about health and/or nutrition, including many free lectures and low-cost nutrition consultations with a Naturopathic Doctor.
And then there’s the food
At the very center of why we’re all here is the food. Our buyers and managers strive to offer as many local products as possible in the store. We believe these locally grown foods are nutritionally more vibrant and are responsible for lower carbon footprints than national or international selections.
A familiar cooperative metaphor centers around the three-legged stool, where one leg represents our Owners, one leg would be our staff and the third is our growers and producers. Working together, we all provide a step up and sometimes a place to rest.