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Principle 6: Food Co-ops On the Rise

This past month Food Co-op Initiative held its sixth annual Up & Coming Food Co-op Conference, designed for food co-op startups and their peers to share ideas and hear about best practices from food co-ops of all ages and sizes. Over 200 people were in attendance. Willy Street Co-op sent four people to the conference: Director of Purchasing Megan Minnick, to teach a session on developing farm and vendor relationships; Prepared Foods Category Manager Patrick Schroeder and Director of Operations Marc BrownGold to present about deli operations; and me, to continue to provide support and mentorship to our friends at Allied Community Cooperative (four board members from their co-op were in attendance). Marc, who is also a board member for Cooperative Grocer Network, gave an additional presentation on developing a management team.

Up & Coming Wisconsin Food Co-ops
Sixty-four food co-ops start-ups were represented at the conference, and seven were from Wisconsin: Allied Community Cooperative in Madison, Clipper City Co-op in Manitowoc, Harvest Market Co-op in Hayward, Hudson Grocery Cooperative, Oshkosh Food Co-op, Whitewater Food Co-op, and Wild Root Market in Racine. That’s quite a lot of new cooperation and it was thrilling to see them all working together, sharing ideas, and hearing how other co-ops new and old have made it to where they are today.

Allied Community Co-op
Last year, the City of Madison allocated $300,000 in seed money for Allied Community Cooperative to explore the development of a cooperatively owned healthy corner store stocked with food staples and essentials in the Allied Dunn’s Marsh neighborhood. Your Co-op is providing mentorship for ACC’s project. The first thing new cooperatives learn is that it takes a long time to get from the inspiration to the reality of opening the doors to your very own grocery store. Some start-ups take three to five years to open and others take six to 10 years. This has been a challenging thing to consider, and it was great to hear from other start-ups how and why the timeline is so long. There’s the idea, then community members need to learn about the idea and invest. Then the organizing team needs to learn about governance; how to raise funds; how to operate a retail business; how to navigate commercial real estate, funding, insurance, regulations, and licensing; how to work with lenders and vendors; how to provide great customer service—it’s quite an education. ACC is still in its first year of organizing and research: putting together the implementation committee, selecting partners and consultants, building community momentum, researching potential sites for the store and beginning to conduct a feasibility study. At the Up & Coming Conference, we attended sessions on the fundamentals of food co-op planning, working with lenders, recruiting volunteers, planning a capital campaign, conventional food distribution, co-op case studies and more. We will keep you posted on their progress, and let you know when they are ready to do fundraising and ownership drives.

Small Co-ops and Large Co-ops: In It Together
Whether your co-op is barely a year old and just beginning to make your vision a reality, or whether your co-op has been around for 40+ years and 32,000+ Owners strong, we all benefit when we cooperate together. The decision to open your own co-op, to grow your existing co-op, or to invite an established co-op into your neighborhood entirely depends on what your community needs. Do you need a grocery store? How soon do you need one? What kind of capital do you have available to start the business? What kind of experience does your organizing team have? What is the goal: to get a grocery store, to build entrepreneurialism in your neighborhood, to provide specific kinds of foods, or something else? These are the kinds of questions communities thinking about starting co-ops ask themselves when taking the leap to organize. And lucky for many food co-ops today, there are mature co-ops out there ready to share our ideas with and do business alongside you. That’s part of practicing Principle Six: Cooperation Among Co-ops.

Cooperating With The NorthSide
Some folks have asked why we are considering a northside location instead of folks on the northside starting their own food cooperative. The ideas are not exclusive; there have been, and will hopefully be in the future, other food co-ops in Madison and the surrounding areas: Regent Market Co-op, Yahara River Food Co-op, Honey Creek Market Co-op, and Basics Co-op are already open; Allied Community Co-op, Baraboo Co-op, Deerfield Food Co-op, and Whitewater Food Co-op are on the way. If there is a group on the northside who wants to start a food co-op to meet their specific needs, it is possible regardless of whether or not we locate in the Pierce’s Market location. Starting a co-op to replace Pierce’s Market was the reason the Northside Planning Council sought us out: to see if we could share ideas with them while they were reviewing the feasibility of opening a new cooperative business. Once it became clear that starting their own co-op would take a lot of time, that we were already investigating an additional location to better serve our Owners, and that there were already many Owners of ours on the northside, they decided to ask us to take a look at the location ourselves: bring the research we were doing, bring our expertise, and bring the investment of 32,000 local people into the community for the long haul. We are honored to be invited, and excited to decide whether or not this is the right fit for our Owners, our staff, and the northside community. Ultimately, we are here to serve local needs, and that is why when we were solicited, we rose to the occasion and were honored to be asked.

Co-ops On The Rise
We teach a class to staff and Owners called Simply Cooperatives to take a look at the nuts and bolts of cooperation, our cooperative business, and cooperatives as the business of a sustainable future. In that class we remind ourselves that there are over one billion cooperators worldwide made of consumers, workers, farms, independent businesses and organizations, families, and more. That’s a whole lot of cooperation, and more of us are cooperating all the time. Here in the U.S., food co-ops and credit union cooperation is still on an upswing; agricultural and insurance co-ops are growing globally. We’re glad to see cooperatives continue to be the preferred business model for sustainable, local, economic sustainability and development and we’re proud to work with our 32,000+ cooperators to have a growing grocery business in the Madison and Middleton metropolitan region.

If you have questions about Ownership in our cooperative or want to know who to talk to about starting a cooperative, food or otherwise, in your neck of the woods, let us know! We’d be happy to share ideas and point you in the right direction.

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