Holly Bender: When did you become an Owner of the Willy Street Coop?
Pat Butler: I joined the Co-op in the 1990s. I worked at Madison Gas & Electric and a few of us would walk down to the Co-op during our lunch break to do some quick shopping when Willy East was the only store. I started shopping at the Co-op more frequently when West opened because I often run errands on the west side of Madison.
HB: Even though you’ve been a shopper at both East and West over the years, you have written about how excited you are about Willy North.
PB: It’s hard to convey my excitement. I live on the northside, and every neighborhood should have a grocery store like Willy North. To me, it’s like Cheers [the iconic Bostonbar] where everyone knows your name and you see your friends and neighbors.
HB: Speaking of Willy North, what do you see as the key to making the store successful, and what will you be focused on during your three-year Board term?
PB: There is so much work to do to educate the community about nutrition and the connection that food has to our overall health. I also see a critical opportunity to educate people about the relative cost of food compared to its value. The quality of the food sold at the Co-op is so high, you are really getting a bargain for your dollar and many people on the northside are still learning about the quality and type of the food that Willy Street Co-op sells.
Willy North will be successful if the Co-op embraces the opportunities to partner with northside organizations, especially those focused on family nutrition and children’s health. For example, I volunteer at the Kennedy Heights Community Center, serving after-school snacks to about 65 kids of all ages. There are opportunities for the Co-op to partner with organizations like this to teach kids and parents about food and nutrition and the connection a healthy meal has to a child’s ability to succeed in other aspects of their life. In winter months when fresh food donations dwindle, the Co-op can help teach meal providers at schools and after-school programs how to make sure fresh food is still part of the daily offerings. I honestly feel like the opportunities for these kinds of partnerships are nearly endless, and really exciting both for the Co-op in achieving its mission and for the community.
HB: You have a wonderful connection to your community through your volunteer work. What does it mean to you to “cooperate” in the sense of food cooperatives?
PB: I grew up in Mississippi during the era of sharecropping, and cooperation among farmers was how all of our families had enough food. My family grew food, just like most families we knew, but it was primarily the landowners that benefitted financially from the food we were able to sell. At the end of the growing season in October, everyone would share the bounty of their harvests with each other so everyone had enough to eat. Growing up, we maybe went to a grocery store once a month, and it wasn’t until I went to college that I understood that most people bought what they eat. To me, this sharing among neighbors, and making sure everyone has good quality food to eat is what cooperation is all about.
HB: Wow, it sounds like you have a deep and personal connection to agriculture and farming. Do you still grow your own food?
PB: Yes, I still have a garden, al-though I have to say it suffered a bit from neglect this year. I still love to eat okra, which was one of the main things we grew in Mississippi.
HB: I think the entire Board has a passion for food and its place in our cultural experiences. What are your favorite food traditions?
My favorite food tradition is Sun-day Dinner. Every Sunday I make fried chicken, collard greens, peas, and peach pie. I’ve been making the same thing every Sunday for as long as I can remember.
HB: Finally, name some Co-op products you couldn’t live without.
PB: I’m pretty sure I bought the first sweet potato I ever tried at the Co-op and to this day, I consider them a staple. I also buy collard greens or turnip greens just about every time I walk in the store.