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31,000+ Reasons to Own: How Do We Hold True to Our Mission and Satisfy Them All?

Why is the price for organics and local foods so high? Why aren’t all your products organic, or local, or non-GMO, or Fair Trade, etc.? Why do we carry products with this ingredient? Why do we carry this brand or that? Why aren’t we carrying this one or that one? Why are we adding more stores? Is growth good for our business? Can we add a store in my neighborhood? How about near my office? Why isn’t your parking lot bigger? Why do we have a parking lot? These are some questions we receive on a regular basis, and as one can see in the examples, we have some conflicting ideas of who we are, and who we should be. Our staff has a saying that we serve the greater good by serving the greater food. We also say that anyone can shop, anyone can join. We mean it, but does it always work out in practice? Does everyone know that they can join us or work here? Does everyone know that if they need help shopping in our store, we have an Access discount program and we accept FoodShare? And even with the program, can everyone still afford to get to our store, or shop here? Is the “greater food” always priced right, or the best to suit the needs and tastes of the neighborhoods we serve? And as we grow, are we serving the greater good to all the neighborhoods affected by our presence? How do we make sure we remain inclusive and meet all our Owners’ and employees’ needs?

These are tough questions, and we can’t answer them alone. With a third store on the horizon, it’s important now more than ever for patrons and staff to get out there and talk to one another, and our neighbors, and our neighboring communities so that we can all get to know our growing Co-op family. What are we eating, who is eating with us, and what can we afford to eat? When we find ourselves wondering if we have lost our sense of direction, go back to the mission: “The Williamson Street Grocery Co-op is an economically and environmentally sustainable, cooperatively owned grocery business that serves the needs of its Owners and employees. We are a cornerstone of a vibrant community in south-central Wisconsin that provides fairly priced goods and services while supporting local and organic suppliers.” A strong, easy-to-understand mission, that can still pose challenges. As our vibrant community grows in population, so do we. Our organization used to be a micro-local entity, serving essentially one neighborhood in Madison, whereas today we serve Owners from all over Dane County and beyond. Looking at zip code reports on new Ownerships, many of today’s new Owners are our weekend commuter shoppers from the outlying areas of the Dane County region. In doing comparisons of historical Ownership numbers, we served just about 0.45% of Dane County residents in the 1970s, whereas today, our 31,000+ active Owners make up about 6% of the county’s population. There is a reasonable explanation for this: our growth correlates with the consolidation of the grocery industry. Essentially, as the options for neighborhood grocers have dwindled, the community has gravitated towards our Co-op because that is where many of us prefer to shop: with and for the local community at a store where we foster a strong local and healthy control over the food supply. It is a familiar feeling from times past, to shop at the local grocer, and those options go away more and more all the time. We should be proud to be the people who fill that industry niche for each other. Now we need to turn our focus to how we can continue to fill that niche while the industry is still consolidating, and still looking to co-opt the cooperative model’s many consumer-oriented innovations and values: organic, Fair Trade, truthful labeling, bulk sales, consumer education, community outreach, and local.

Meeting a broader base of Owner needs
As our small business grows (though remains small in the grand scheme of things), we become less micro-localized and need to think more broadly to meet a broader base of Owner and employee needs. Meeting the needs of 1,300 people in 1974 and meeting the needs of 31,000+ today is an extraordinarily different endeavor. We all have different demographics, educational backgrounds, eating habits, shopping habits, economic securities, and health levels. And it’s not just Owners and employees that become more and more diverse as we grow: our vendors are more diverse as well. Not all local vendors start with the same amount of capital to grow their businesses. Many budding small producers cannot afford organic certifications, non-GMO certifications, or to supply grocers as much product as the grocers demand at what we traditionally see as “low prices.” How do we make sure we support all of our local vendors fairly and equally? We own together so that we can learn from each other’s differences and collectively ensure that all of us have a place where we can explore our own versions and each other’s versions of the greater good and the greater food.

Our revised Food and Product Selection Policy
With all of our growth over the last decade, and with all of these questions about our food system and our store on the rise, and in preparation for growing our co-op community again with a third store, the Co-op has just revised its Food and Product Selection Philosophy. We kept it broad, and in positive terms, keeping it a philosophy based on what we do support, rather than making it a policy regarding what we do not. We ensured in drafting the philosophy that we would be able to meet our mission and strike a balance between providing the lowest cost for a product possible, considering the true cost of the product for our vendors, and paying living wage to our staff, who are also Owners and part of the vibrant community we serve. We kept the overall store philosophy broad to ensure that individual categories within the Purchasing Department had enough room to create a buying methodology that works for their grocery section and can meet the needs of all our Owners. It reads:

As a neighborhood-based, full service grocer, we are committed to:

  • Preferring to source local, organic, natural, sustainable, humane, and fairly traded products which represent our Owners’ diverse values and contribute to healthy, just, tolerant and viable communities.
  • Providing fairly priced products to support accessibility for all in our community.
  • Fostering supportive and transparent relationships with small, local, or cooperatively-operated farms and businesses that share our commitment to operate in ethical and environmentally sustainable ways.
  • Helping Owners make informed choices about products whenever possible.

We use this philosophy in striving to meet the changing needs of our growing community.

Definitions

  • Accessibility: The right to access fairly priced and nutritious products.
  • Local: Products produced in the state of Wisconsin or within 150 miles of the Capitol building. We also give preference to items of superior quality from the Midwest region that support smaller distribution chains.
  • Organic: Products that meet the National Organic Standards Board criteria of organic practices.
  • Natural: Products that are minimally processed and free of unnecessary additives.
  • Sustainable: Products produced and packaged in a manner that has minimal negative impact and offers nutritive benefits to the environment, community and consumers that support its production.
  • Humane: Products produced with consideration for kinder and more responsible animal practices.
  • Fair Trade: Commitment to a food system in which farmers, workers, and producers are valued and compensated fairly at each step of the supply chain.

Our Food and Product Selection Philosophy is just one way we are considering our future, and our Owners and employees needs. Much more work needs to be done, and it will never be complete. Whether we are growing or not, our vibrant South Central Wisconsin community will continue to change and our Owners’ and employees’ needs will parallel those changes along the way. What it means to be economically and environmentally sustainable and support organic and local suppliers today may not mean the same thing tomorrow. Thank you to all of our Owners for your many contributions to the discussion and for continuing to ask questions. That’s what makes us think about all the details, helps us grow with the community, and serve us all the greater.

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