In 2001, after 21 years as a “vegetarian” food co-op, the Takoma Park-Silver Spring Food Co-op of Maryland (TPSS) faced a crisis of principles: many of its member-owners wanted it to start selling animal products, while many other didn’t. The way we addressed and resolved this issue offers insights into member representation, cultural dynamics, and economic democracy.
“The meat issue” started with the results of our first comprehensive survey of the membership in early 2001. TPSS had recently grown from a store with 1,000 retail square feet and $2 million in sales to a store with 5,000 retail square feet and $4 million in sales. This relocation/expansion and a subsequent financial crisis drove those of us on the Board of Representatives to the realization that we didn’t really know who our members were or what they wanted their co-op to be.
Our survey asked only a couple of general questions about selling meat, so the results were a little hard to interpret. One thing it told us we already knew: that there were many members with strong feelings against it. But it also told us something rather surprising: there were many members who wanted it. It appeared that our vegetarian store had fallen seriously out of line with a growing number of members and customers. Although I was a long-time vegetarian myself, I began to suspect that it was only a vocal minority of our members who actually objected to our co-op selling meat.
Later that year, we were forced to confront “the meat question” when we opened a second store in a less counter-culture, more working-class neighborhood. The community there was very supportive of its new grocery store but also very vocal about not being able to buy meat, fish, poultry, and pet food. Initial sales figures made it clear that the store wouldn’t survive unless it could become more of a one-stop shop.
The board’s hand is forced
The staff of our new store formally asked the Board what the actual policy was on selling meat. Trouble was, there wasn’t really a clear, written policy! TPSS had always called itself and thought of itself as a “vegetarian” co-op. But there wasn’t actually anything in our bylaws or other written policies that prohibited the staff from selling products derived from animals, nor was the word “vegetarian” actually defined anywhere. A “philosophy statement” from one of our founding committees described us as a vegetarian store but subsequently stated, “We realize things change over time.” As one original member put it, our co-op had an “ambiguity” in its founding principles.
At various times in our history, TPSS had sold meat-based pet food and special-order turkeys, and the co-op had operated a café that had sold fish and chicken dishes. We had always sold supplements in capsules made from gelatin and cheese containing animal rennet. With no affirmative definition of “vegetarian,” our practices had drifted back and forth across the landscape of the word.
Most significant to me was the discovery that the entire membership had never been given the chance to actually vote on the question via a written ballot mailed to all members. Founding members would says things like “it was just understood” or “we always figured these things out at General Membership meetings.” But our membership had gone from 200 to 2,800 in a few years, and meetings drew less than 2% of the membership, usually just a few people.
The Board had to face the harsh reality that our quasi-vegetarian practices were more tradition than policy, and that we could no longer be sure how the majority of members felt about the issue. We told the staff of our new store that there was no actual bylaw or policy preventing them from selling animal products; at the same time, we resolved to seek the guidance of the membership on the issue—somehow. As President, I wrote an article for our newsletter, informing the membership of our findings.
Democracy vs. other principles
You’d think that co-op members would readily unite behind the simple, democratic idea of settling the question with a paper ballot mailed to all members. But since the status quo was to not sell meat (or anything that looked like meat, anyway), many members who feared change expressed it in a variety of ways. Some objected to the idea of a vote, asserting that it was unnecessary—after all, when a person joins an avowedly “vegetarian” co-op, isn’t he or she endorsing its practices? Others focused on reciting all of the health, ethical, and environmental arguments against eating meat—arguments that the co-op itself had been making for over 20 years.
On a deeper level, I think we were facing a cultural conundrum. The founders of our co-op chose a democratic model for the business, but most of them also held distinctly counter-cultural or other “alternative” values. Even as our co-op grew and the members (i.e., owners) became more diverse and “mainstream,” our most active members—those with the greatest influence—continued to be more ideological. Thus, the subculture that dominated the policies and practices of the store represented a narrower perspective than that of the co-op membership as a whole.
One of the most disturbing refrains that I heard during this process was, “If the co-op sells meat, I might as well shop at Whole Foods.” After hearing this from a number of my fellow vegetarians, I realized that our quasi-vegetarianism was more important to them than even our economic democracy. In asking myself to choose between the two, I found myself on the other side. I see member self-determination as an overriding principle, more fundamental than any more specific political, nutritional, or environmental ideal. First and foremost, a cooperative exists to represent the interests of its members. The seven co-operative principles don’t say anything about vegetarianism.
Some members said that it wasn’t really about democracy vs. vegetarianism, but I disagreed. If the founders try to incorporate specific ideals into the existence of the co-op, what happens when a majority of members disagree with those ideals? Either the co-op changes into what a majority of its members want it to be, or it becomes ruled by a minority—in which case it probably dies for lack of support, and everyone loses.
The democratic component in a co-op is an overriding value—if member interests are truly represented, then the values practiced by the co-op will surely change as the membership changes. Conversely, if the founders of a business want to be assured that it will always advance certain ideals, they shouldn’t make that business a democracy—otherwise, a majority of future owners may disavow those ideals at any time.
Even as a vegetarian, I began to see the issue as “pro-choice” vs. “anti-choice” regarding member needs. If the co-op sold meat, all members could meet their needs at our stores. But if the co-op remained quasi-vegetarian, many members would be forced to go elsewhere. There was a new Whole Foods less than two miles away—losing shoppers was now easier than ever!
On to the vote
The board realized that only the members could answer the question and charged the membership committee with a number of key tasks. First, we raised member awareness of the issue, got people thinking and talking about it. This was accomplished through continuing mention in our newsletter as well a special issue of the newsletter devoted to the topic. A couple of local papers and a neighborhood email discussion took up the issue. We also held a special membership meeting where members stated their views and put questions to the board and the general manager.
Second, we figured out just what question it was that we needed the members to answer for us. This was hammered out over several months of membership committee meetings that were open to all members and given special publicity. Through some often contentious and downright inspired dialogue, we realized that the question was not “meat: yes or no?” The question was, “Do we give staff the discretion to meet whatever demand there may be for animal products, or do we simply prohibit the staff from selling them?” We also realized that the best way to express and encode member sentiment was to present the question as a proposed revision to our mission statement, which had no “vegetarian” proviso.
Third, the membership committee drafted the ballot mailer itself, with the final text and layout approved by the board of directors. This mailer included the current mission statement and the proposed revision, along with some explanatory text, and urged to members to read the special issue of the newsletter, think carefully about the matter, and discuss it with others.
Finally, the membership committee mailed out the ballots and oversaw the tallying of results. To help assure that no tampering took place or could be suspected, all completed ballots were returned (via locked ballot boxes in the stores, or directly by U.S. mail) to an impartial third party (our CPA), who reported the results.
The vote settles the question
In March of 2002, after six weeks of voting, the results were in. Thirty percent of voting members wanted the mission statement to be amended to include the word “vegetarian,” and seventy percent wanted to leave it out. There were just over 1,000 votes, a turnout of around 35 percent—not as much as we’d hoped, but much better than a typical board election.
By endorsing the less restrictive mission statement, a significant majority of TPSS members had decided to formally delegate to the staff all decisions regarding the sale of products derived from animals. More importantly, with a vote margin greater than 2 to 1, the intent of the membership was unambiguous. This created an immediate acceptance of the results by almost all members, with no challenges to the integrity of the process and a sense of unity for moving forward.
TPSS took almost two years to settle this issue. While I can’t speak for the entire co-op, I think that’s a good thing. Along with the newsletter articles, the public forum, and the well-considered question that we asked the members, they had the opportunity to gain some clarity on all of the passions surrounding the issue and to really think and talk about what a co-op truly stands for.