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Here’s to Four More Cooperative Decades

While telling stories of Willy Street Co-op’s 40 years putting food on your and your neighbors’ tables, there is no better time to look at our past and consider history’s most important role: reflecting to better shape our future.

Cornerstones of Vibrant Communities
For well over a century, co-ops have been serving the greater good by providing consumers and workers alike collective voices for meeting our needs together. An outgrowth of civil rights movements across generations around the globe, we are united with over one billion people who continue to justify co-ops as a business and economic model that provides advancement opportunities personally, financially, and professionally for all of us. Whether we are providing food, goods, health care, housing, transportation or land at a fair cost; whether we are providing tools and supplies to smaller businesses and farms in underserved communities to promote their economic stability and independence; whether we are purchasing fairly traded goods from and developing direct relationships with small independent producers locally and abroad; whether we are giving financial assistance and credit opportunities to individuals and businesses who may not be able to acquire credit traditionally; or whether we are helping create other co-ops in other places to fit whatever their needs may be, co-ops are the cornerstones of vibrant communities everywhere, and for that, we all can be very proud.

Willy Street Is Main Street
Co-ops are the cornerstone of not only vibrant communities, but also the Main Street economy. Rather than a select few financial investors, it is we who decide our fate in the cooperative movement. We are the ones who develop and manage viable and sustainable solutions to our needs. In October 1974, we started as a full service grocery selling bulk grains, beans, flours, produce, dried fruits, dairy, frozen foods, and basic packaged grocery. We invested in the Marquette Neighborhood’s quest for healthy, sustainable, clean food and becamea neighborhood institution, helping to lift it out of deteriorating socioeconomic conditions and into a thriving community of both residents and local businesses. Today, our Co-op is a county-wide investment, collectively supporting hundreds of vendors within our local region (in Wisconsin or within 150 miles of our state capitol). We now provide a viable local grocery option on Madison’s westside in Middleton. We are collectively one of the largest financial backers of our northside community FEED Kitchens. We’ve CHIPed over $200,000 annually to nonprofits in Community Shares, invested $25-$30,000 of abandoned Owner equity annually in organizations eligible for our Community Reinvestment Fund, and started loaning to local Co-op vendors who need investments in their capital to grow their businesses and ergo grow our local economy so the greater. We are also job creators. Our Co-op went from needing to rely on the kindness of volunteers to providing 300+ people community-wide with living wages, health benefits, retirement plans, paid time off, profit share, and representation on our Employee Council to vet decisions that affect all Co-op personnel. When we make more profit than we need in a year to support our operations and thank our staff via profit share, patronage is given back to our Owners to reinvest in the economy once again. Our endeavors together have become powerful tools in our economy and thanks to 31,000+ Owners, we will continue to use those tools to become even stronger together.

Owning Locally, Impacting Globally
Our collective commitment to small, local, and cooperatively operated farms and businesses means we support producers who are committed to land and water conservation and stewardship, committed to their employees, and that we are helping provide healthy and empowered means to avoid poverty and food insecurity. Some of our local fair trade suppliers include Equal Exchange, Frontier Natural Products, Just Coffee, Kickapoo Coffee, and Rishi Tea to name a few. Our support of these suppliers supports direct relationships with farmer families and farm co-ops all over the world. Our Co-op and co-ops worldwide supporting each other have provided a means for economic stability and liberation for one billion people and will continue to do so for generations to come.

The Cooperative Decade
The United Nations proclaimed 2012 the Year of Cooperatives and we are currently involved in what is known as the Cooperative Decade. The International Cooperative Alliance (of which we are members due to our membership in the National Cooperative Business Association) says that “By 2020, poverty will have increased, the plight of young people will have deteriorated, and global warming will be having more frequent impacts on everyday life.” We can change that forecast together. We know it because we have done it ourselves in our own community, and due to our success, we will continue to do more. Our cooperative community in Dane County as well as the cooperative communities in places such as Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Austin, and Cincinnati, to name a few, are models for how co-ops can lead the way in economic, social, and environmental sustainability. We want to grow the use of cooperatives to empower Main Street people worldwide to come together to solve their economic, social, and environmental challenges. We put people at the heart of our food chain here in Madison and Middleton, and as a result, we have done so much more, creating jobs and capital for so many in our community. Now it’s time to take it to the next level, and utilize Cooperative Principles Six and Seven to cooperate with others worldwide to do things for the communities who want the same kinds of successes cooperatives in Dane County have already provided.  

On The Horizon
In August we voted to invest in a third retail location, with the hope that we will be creating more access to the local, organic, natural, sustainable, humane and fairly traded products we love to support. This third store will create more living wage jobs, more opportunities for local producers to provide for us, and probably more Ownership, meaning more equity for us to invest in ourselves and our community through our Community Reinvestment Fund.

Within the next couple years, we will be evaluating our Local Vendor Loan Fund pilot program with the hopes to offer more loans to more of our vendors to grow their capital. We hope to see this program to success, meaning that we can eventually open up the program for our Owners to invest in, and create a complete microlending community within our cooperative.

We will continue our relationship with Community Shares of Wisconsin, and in addition to Community CHIP, find more ways to partner with the organizations under their umbrella to continue advancing the respect of natural and human environments, and advocate for social, economic, and cultural inclusivity.

We will continue to support other co-ops, in hopes that more community owned businesses build better economies that lead to better lives around the world. While we are local, we also need to support other regions and their community desire to serve their local needs.

We will continue to listen to our Owners—you are the collective voice we represent, and we come together for the cause of local, organic, clean, sustainable, fair foods. Individually, we won’t always agree on everything, but together, we will continue to navigate and advocate for our common ground regarding our food, our land, our farmers, and our community.  

Cheers To 40 Years
Congratulations for 40 years in the driver’s seat of the Main Street economy on Willy Street, University Avenue, and beyond. We are part of a rich history of cooperation among cooperatives and our local communities. Our history brought us to where we are today and our collective memory and voices will carry us through to future generations. Keep sharing; we look forward to 40 more years of working with and for you.

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