Pointing Resources Toward A Strong National Network

Having recently attended the CCMA Conference in Eureka, California, I am newly impressed and heartened by the enthusiasm and commitment by many in our co-op sector to do the difficult and intimidating work of strengthening our national network. As staff for National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA), I was interested to hear statements, questions and demands during presentations and audience discussions about a national agenda and its implementation. It felt as though the discussion was heating up, from conceptual to practical, and there were more people participating in that discussion.

It is time to celebrate leadership, and encourage the possibly risky yet bold initiatives that can have the most immediate impact on our market situation. We have spent years identifying and articulating the obstacles and the challenges. It is time to point our faith, expectations, and most of all resources toward the realization of a strong national network of independent businesses that has the process and capacity to be agile and decisive. This does not threaten or impede our independence; to the contrary it harnesses our individual strengths, leverages them, and makes us a viable player in a national environment. National political change occurs when communities align their efforts around a common desire, and a larger voice becomes heard. Duplicated in our business efforts, this would not mean relinquishing our autonomy but raising the volume of our collective voice.

Could one dollar per month from a critical mass of our consumers fund a Co-op brand strategy?

At CCMA, I heard both faith and expectation directed at our national network. I heard discussions around buying programs, training and development, consumer advocacy and political action, technical and operational support systems and more. I know that the board of directors of NCGA and other leadership groups and organizations within the food co-op sector have talked about and grappled with balancing these needs against capacity and resources. At NCGA, we are self-sustaining in this our third year of operations, but our progress is certainly impeded by our limited capacity and access to resources and capital. There is only so much that member CGAs and their stores can contribute, when many are facing shrinking margins and depressed profitability. Yet, the needs mentioned require resources for development and effective implementation.

It is time to apply resources. We cannot let our lack of capitalization prevent our harnessing that louder voice, and providing our businesses the tools they need to thrive. It is time for creative solutions and awareness within our organizations that go far beyond a layer of staff and management. I know of at least one co-op that is currently engaged in a campaign to inform their consumer owners of the needs and opportunities that exist on a national level. They are doing this in preparation for asking their owners for grassroots support of our national initiatives and engaging them directly in the dialogue that must occur.

Could one dollar per month from a critical mass of our consumers fund a Co-op brand strategy that in turn would attract and retain new consumers in cooperative ownership of their local food store? Could such a campaign fund a coordinated effort to drive legislation of "point of origin" labeling to protect consumers' rights of disclosure about the contents of the food they consume? Or could it even endow a cooperative development fund that provides much needed and often hard to secure financing to those trying to start a new food co-op or expand their operations? All of these, I believe, would have enormous impact in both our local communities and on a national scale and thereby illustrate the necessity to think virtual and act real.

What are other creative solutions? I see talent, passion and commitment within our network that is certainly capable of addressing this challenge and providing the leadership required to move us forward. It is time for even more people to be participating in the discussion. We are hundreds of thousands of people strong, collectively, and that is economic power. Let's use it to safeguard and promote the values that ground our communities and make them vibrant. We can accomplish so much more together than alone.


Robynn Shrader is executive director of NCGA.

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