I’m going to get right down to it—it is harder than ever to be a retail cooperative that sells organic, natural, and local foods. We are no longer alone. The multitude of players on the scene is simultaneously enlivening and disheartening. Consider this, 2014 was the first year in which “conventional” grocers sold more organic produce than specialty and natural foods grocers in the United States. Now, in some ways, this is great, because it means more organic food met more mouths, which is something we can all appreciate the value of. It also means that more organic farmers entered supply chains that didn’t include them ten years ago. Except, where does the Willy Street Co-op fit into this picture? Larger retailers are taking on this market—it no longer belongs solely to stores like ours. This isn’t really news to you or me. So what purpose do we serve? Local foods, right? We have a lot, certainly, but other retailers are making that a priority, as well. Now, I don’t mean to simply bemoan our fate. This is not a rant. It is simply an inquiry into why we do what we do and how we could more deeply achieve those ends.
The scoop is this, folks. This Co-op of yours, hundreds like it around the country, as well as many more non- and for-profit businesses are serving a very specific role—that of a food hub. The University of Minnesota describes them thus, “Food hubs are the emerging infrastructure for the aggregation, processing, and distribution of local foods.” Steve Warshawer, of La Montanita’s Foodshed Initiative and the Wallace Center, took the definition one step further for me, recently. He said, “a food hub is actually a series of activities,” and not necessarily a place at all. This is what really struck a chord for me, as I had previously imagined that “food hub” was something that others were being and doing. He challenged me to think critically about the communications and actions that our Willy Street Co-op engages in and match those up to the activities of a food hub. Here are a few.
Processing local food and adding value
You grow broccoli. Not only broccoli, but it’s a big part of your business. Your contracted buyer deems your current harvest “too large” and turns down the 15 cases you have just finished packing. More than a hundred pounds of broccoli, and nowhere to go. You reach out to the Willy Street Co-op and they find outlets for your broccoli through their Produce departments and kitchens. You made the phone call early in the morning. The last case of broccoli leaves your hands shortly before 1:00pm. Done!
Readying producers for the supply chain
You’re a small farmer. You sell peaches! Some day, you would love to sell organic peaches, but the cost of turning over your orchard is too steep and you need the revenue. The certification ain’t cheap, either. The Willy Street Co-op would love to sell organic peaches grown by you, so they offer you a loan. You plant a new orchard, get it certified organic, and now have the opportunity to continue to make money with your conventional produce while your new trees grow into their fruit-bearing age. Willy Street Co-op awaits your first crop eagerly!
You sell cheese. You sell it well, and often. You’re a semi-famous fixture at the farmers’ market. You approach the Willy Street Co-op and their Cheese Coordinator agrees to sell three of your cheeses. All is well until shortly after your first delivery when you get a call from their Finance department. Something’s not right with your invoice—it needs a unique number to be recorded and filed effectively. You’ve never been told this before. You’ve been selling to restaurants and small shops for years. You take the finance staffer’s advice and rework your invoice. You even get a program that manages and prints them. The next wholesale account you start compliments you on your professional billing!
More broccoli! You sit down at your computer and open an email from the Willy Street Co-op. They’re looking for farmers who are interested in selling organic produce to a local food processor, the Innovation Kitchen. Great! You sign on for 500 pounds of organic broccoli. It gets delivered to Innovation Kitchen in Mineral Point, processed into little florets, frozen, and bagged. Willy Street Co-op commits to selling the whole lot, right alongside nationally distributed brands, in their frozen aisle, as soon as the local fresh broccoli season ends.
The bottom line is this: larger retailers don’t often see the value or have the organizational flexibility to take these actions and engage with producers on this level. These types of activities are part of our DNA as a food cooperative. Many of us employed by your Co-op are passionate about deepening our involvement in our local food system. I would love to say a helluva lot more about this, but I’ve run out my word count. Suffice it to say, we’re having this conversation as your Co-op and we’ll keep you posted.