Food Co-ops Rock!
Food Co-ops Rock! Annual Conference Builds National Solidarity
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From #107, July-August 2003
Food Co-ops Rock!
Annual Conference Builds National Solidarity
B Y D A V E G U T K N E C H T
Food co-ops are aiming for greater unity, responding to wider opportunities for cooperative development as well as stronger competitive threats. Passionate discussions and closer connections among co-ops were in the air as over 350 cooperators gathered on June 11-14 in Lexington, Kentucky at the annual Consumer Cooperative Management Association (CCMA) conference. The largest group of CCMA attendees to date shared professional presentations, workshops, and nonstop conversations with allies and friends. They came from across the country, along with a keynote speaker from Atlantic Canada, Sid Pobihushchy. Though not a business suit was to be seen, attendees were experienced managers, trainers, developers, and directors, leaders in defending and advancing cooperatives.
In Lexington's northern Kentucky region, the clean and calcium-enriched water that has seeped through layers of limestone yields nourishment for bluegrass, strong horses, and smooth bourbon distilleries. Local bus tours brought visiting cooperators to these attractions as well as to the beautiful store and new café at Good Foods Co-op in Lexington, the local host along with other members of the Southeast Cooperative Grocers Association.
Years of pooled cooperative experience also has been distilled and could almost be tasted in the level of discussion and leadership evident at the Lexington sessions. Sponsored by the National Cooperative Business Association and planned by Ann Hoyt and colleagues at the Urban Cooperative Initiative, CCMA has been held annually for 47 years. It brings together newcomers and veterans, many of the best of our cooperative sector-strong and beautiful people, loving friends and distant allies, all working for the health of their members and communities-in a kind of strategic summit for food co-ops.
Leadership roles among food co-ops are shared by several of the organizations that were present. But this year the discussions around further development of food co-ops were especially focused on a proposed unified national structure. The regional Cooperative Grocers Associations that have significantly strengthened food co-ops in recent years (see summary reports in the May-June Cooperative Grocer) are morphing into one national organization with programmatic and regional subsets. The board of the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA), a group of veteran managers chosen from each of the regional associations, proposed the unitary structure at the beginning of the conference-anticipating not merely days but months of discussion among member co-ops.
The conference theme, "Humpty Dumpty Rocks," evoked both the threats and enormous potential of the current period: co-ops have strong growth and profitability but also face market competitors that could do serious damage to a fragile co-op sector. The nature of that much changed natural/organic market was highlighted in a keynote speech (see sidebar) by Michael Funk, CEO of United Natural Foods Inc., the large and publicly traded company that is now the primary distributor for most co-ops.
Funk reiterated that co-op success is very important to UNFI; co-op volume is helping to protect services for independent retailers generally; and it balances larger sales to Whole Foods and other supermarket chains. He emphasized UNFI's continuing strong commitment to protecting standards for organic production through supporting the work of the Organic Trade Association and a new foundation, Center for Organic Education and Promotion. Funk foresaw no change in UNFI's market leadership in natural/organic distribution, but urged co-ops to strengthen their buying power, which could include support of many products and producers not handled by the conventional chains. With provocative irony, he suggested that co-ops need an "Attila the Hun" leadership to unite their fragmented tribes so that their impact could spread.
A message promoting greater national unity had already been presented by the NCGA board of directors, and it was heard throughout the conference. Excitement ran high, as did passion for reaching more people with the values that we share with each other, with our communities, and with cooperatives globally.
At the conference, a raucous caucus, now named the Italian Cooperative Grocers Association, plotted its annual satirical takeover of several minutes' duration. The ad hoc group's motto is, "Don't worry, it's only groceries!" But their joking summary of conference themes more closely reflected the solidarity, stronger confidence, and vision that the attendees radiated:
Funky Dumpty stood in the hall,
Dave Gutknecht is editor of Cooperative Grocer: [email protected].