During the summers of my childhood, sleeping in Saturday mornings was often added to my inventory of innocent hopes and dreams. My slumber was interrupted with the promise that, if we got the yard work done early; we would have more time to play. One of those chores was always the daunting task of picking the beans from the family garden. I often wondered, at the time, if there really was a magical bean stalk character who got his kicks off of replenishing and multiplying the beans we had picked the previous day. I didn’t understand his humor.
Luckily for me, the garden became smaller and smaller and I again was able to take control of my weekends. After multiple summers with no picking, I wondered what ever happened to mornings in the garden. To my surprise, I missed it.
Years later, I would come to desire waking up early to work in my own garden. Not only that, but I also chose to spend a summer on a vegetable farm, where I was met again with my previous nemesis, Mr. Bean. Here is where I truly discovered what I had been missing about picking beans. I missed the connection I had with my food. I missed theexcitement I had when I saw the first sign of vegetation, seeing it grow 3 times its size seemingly overnight, and having the sense of ownership and accomplishment that came with being so close.
Being close to where our food is grown also represents an even larger concern: knowing where our food comes from. If you aren’t able to grow your own food you are relying on the trust of your producers to offer you a quality product. Since we are not all farmers anymore, we are confronted with this issue of trust at every meal.
So, what a group of us are doing locally to confront this issue is to open a cooperatively owned grocery store that connects our community with local producers and quality food. Our mission is to open a retail front grocery store that offers a wider range of healthy, natural, local, fair wage for producers, and other food concerns of the community. We also want to support the array of Wisconsin farmers that surrounds the Oshkosh area by buying and selling their fresh produce, humanely raised meats, dairy, etc. This idea is what some of you may know as a Food Co-op.
What is a Co-op?
A Food Co-op is part of a larger structure, which is simply cooperative business. What co-op business does is aim to meet the needs of a unified group of people. For instance you may remember farming and gas cooperatives of days gone by or, you may be a member of a credit union. Maybe you buy Sunkist or Organic Valley products. These are all examples of cooperative businesses. It is a business model based on the needs of the people. Instead of a singular business owner, the voting members of the business are the owner and a board of directors makes decisions based on member concerns. This ensures that what the majority wants is always the priority. For this reason, all co-ops are democratically run. This business structure also allows for more variety of foods because we ultimately aim to meet food concerns of thousands of people. This means offering multiple varieties of, let’s say, tomatoes or more ethnic food options.
What can I buy there?
What you can expect to see on the shelves of a food co-op is much like what you see when you enter a conventional grocer. There is a produce section, frozen goods, dairy, meats, aisles of canned and packaged products, bulk foods, toiletries, beauty products, kitchen utensils, etc. The difference is in the quality of the products offered and the governance model. Many co-ops also support many local artisans by carrying their goods and offering their services. We are working together with local producers to provide a sense of food safety in knowing what you eat was grown close to home.
Our co-Chair, Stephanie, shared a story that really drove this home. While shopping at a grocery store on the far Western side of the state, she noticed a sign next to the peaches that indicated they were grown in Sturgeon Bay. She thought about this. Those peaches traveled twice as far as they needed to in order to be purchased by Stephanie, because there is nowhere to buy them closer. What we hope to do is to bridge that gap.
A co-op may also offer cooking classes and food education. Your co-op should be a welcoming and comfortable place to shop. A friendly staff and clear food labels will help you to become familiar with a store in your town. And remember! You don’t have to be a member to shop at a food co-op, everyone is welcome.
Why does Oshkosh Need a Food Co-op?
In the US, there is a rather standard set up for how a food co-op is laid out and designed. Lucky for us, there was a large movement in the 60’s and 70’s that laid the groundwork for the existence of food cooperatives today. Recently, we are seeing that push again. Communities are re-examining the importance of cooperative business in our economy and the added value that a food co-op will bring our households and producers. That is why 2012 is the International Year for Cooperatives, and Oshkosh will proudly be joining in on the celebration.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon says, the international year of cooperatives is “a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue economic vitality and social responsibility.” In light of the many challenges we face today, globally, this theme is an excellent way to bring people together and exercise their strength in numbers.
Benefits to having a food co-op in your community include; access to local and healthy food, keeping money local, job creation, environmental stewardship, and supporting local farmers and artisans. According to the National Cooperative Grocery Association, “For every $1,000 a shopper spends at their local food co-op, $1,604 in economic activity is generated in their local economy—$239 more than if they had spent that same $1,000 at a conventional grocer.”
Another reality we face in Oshkosh is that a large portion of the city is situated in what is known as a food desert. A food desert is an urban or rural area that has limited access to healthy and affordable food. Having a food co-op will hit this issue head on. The food co-op will offer multiple membership payment options to make it feasible for anyone to become a member. Making this affordable to everyone is a concern throughout this effort, and we plan to tackle that as best we can.
History of the Oshkosh Effort
Our local effort started last July. It had come to my attention that I wasn’t the only one in town who was hoping someone would miraculously bring us a food co-op filled with natural foods beyond our wildest dreams. Well folks, unfortunately, just as in the case of money, there are no co-op trees. If we wanted one, we had to make it happen. A small group of influential community members started research on what it takes to start a co-op. We were provided an opportunity to survey interest in the local community at the American Democracy Project: Creating a Stronger Community Contest. Our idea was so popular that it won the American Democracy Project Award for 2011. We were awarded $1,750 to pursue our project. This has been a huge help with affording basic business start up costs. This contest showed us that we had the support of the community and gave us the financial confidence to start working and make progress.
Since our award last September we have held a community focus group, where we invited the community to provide us with feedback and input; we have elected a provisional board of directors to lead and organize this effort, and we are currently working on becoming incorporated. Our group is working closely with legal professionals in the surrounding area to complete this process. The food co-op has also been present every-other Saturday this summer at the Oshkosh Farmer’s Market. This exposure has helped us to talk one-on-with the people of Oshkosh and answer questions and concerns they have. We are also there to get them involved and connected through our email account, Facebook, and Twitter.
Who is Leading the Effort?
One of the key components to a successful co-op is assembling a team of professional business and community leaders. We are very proud to introduce the members of our board of directors. I, Bridgette Weber, am currently the Chair. I am a full time student studying Environmental Science at UW-Oshkosh. I have a strong passion for supporting the health of the community through local food initiatives. I have worked with multiple local farms during their growing season and have been a cook at various restaurants for the last 5 years in Oshkosh. I have been a member of the UWO-Community Gardens, the Student Environmental Action Coalition, and serve as the secretary for a sustainable business organization on campus.
Stephanie Gyldenvand is our Co-Chair. Stephanie is the head organizer for ESTHER of the Fox Valley, a non-profit interfaith social justice organization. She was an honoree for the 4 Under Forty award which celebrates Oshkosh’s emerging leaders. Stephanie has been a key leader in this initiative and has been a part of its effort from day one.
Lawrence Stahowiak is our Treasurer. Lawrence is recently retired and joined our team just a few months after we initially organized. Lawrence supports the idea of creating a member owned and operated cooperative retail space which offers clean, healthy and locally grown food to the Oshkosh community for fair price.
Michelle Duren is our Secretary. Michelle is a full time student at the UW-Oshkosh, majoring in Political Science with minors in French and Economics. Michelle will be pursuing her Master’s degree in Public Policy after this year. Michelle has been involved in the Political Science Student Association, College Democrats, Community Gardens, and Student Environmental Action Coalition.
Brenda Haines is heading up our marketing committee and is a director at large. Brenda is co-owner of Blue Door Consulting marketing firm in Oshkosh and has been a key contributor to this effort. Brenda has been involved with the co-op from its origin last July. Brenda earned her Masters in Public Administration from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and is a summa cum laude graduate of Wartburg College with degrees in Communication Arts/Electronic Media and Political Science.
Michael McShane is the director of the Operations committee. His involvement started in July of 2012. Mike has a BS in Mechanical Engineering and most recently worked for Bemis. Mike continually is learning more about real and local food through the Whole Plate curriculum developed by Viroqua’s Youth Initiative High School and at his CSA, Fraser Farms, in Ripon. Mike aims to bring that knowledge to the community.
Alison McShane is also a member of the Operations committee. She is a work-share CSA member at Fraser Farms. Alison hopes to carry over her expertise as a buyer and visual merchandiser when the Co-op is realized.
Brain Clarke is a director at large and is serving on our Operations committee. Brian is a full time student at UW Oshkosh, pursuing a master’s degree in mental health counseling. He has 12 years experience in restaurant management in San Francisco, Chicago and Phoenix and will use his expertise in business management, product knowledge and customer service to enhance our coop and community. Brian came aboard in June of 2012.
Paul Van Auken is a member of our financial committee and has expertise in grant writing and community development. Paul is a professor at UW-Oshkosh in Sociology and Environmental Studies. Paul believes in community involvement and advocates for local and sustainably produced foods. Paul is also a regular writer for the Oshkosh SCENE.
Brian Padley is a member of our financial committee and director at large. Brian is the Continuous Improvement Manager at Bemis Inc. and has been on the project for the last 2 months. Brian has a passion for local, fresh food and a stronger Oshkosh community.
Greta Boulter is our volunteer coordinator and serves as a director at large. Greta is a graduate of Eastern Michigan University with a degree in Management and has spent the past 18 years in Human Resources as a Generalist and Business Partner. She feels her experience, as a steward of a company’s greatest asset, its people, will translate well into a program committed to the overall health of a community. Greta is a passionate fresh produce lover, tended large gardens throughout my childhood and believes having access to fresh, local produce all year around is a privilege all should enjoy.
Alain Landi is a member of our marketing committee and director at large. Alaina is an English Major with a minor in Spanish at UW-Oshkosh. She is Chief Marketing Officer of SIFE (Students in Free Enterprise). Alaina became involved with the Food Co-op in February 2012, in conjunction with SIFE. Alaina has trained extensively in critical analysis and has used her creativity and love for language as she takes control of the committee’s social media campaign.
What Benefits do I have as a Member?
The most important benefit of becoming a member is the co-op itself; your privilege to shop at a store that encompasses cooperative ideals. Additionally, members are given a vote. Members are invited to the annual meetings and are involved in the decision making process. Members will also receive newsletters and the opportunity to be involved and connected with their community co-op. There may also be opportunities for member-only sales or discounts. Becoming a member ensures the vitality of the business.
The NCGA states, “The average co-op earning $10 million per year in revenue provides jobs for over 90 workers. In total, 68 percent of those workers are eligible for health insurance, compared to 56 percent of employees at conventional grocers. Co-op employees also earn an average of nearly $1.00 more per hour than conventional grocery workers when bonuses and profit sharing are taken into account.” Food co-ops use member investments to purchase equipment, expand inventory, improve facilities, pay off debt, pay deposits with suppliers, and research new services and business opportunities. In today’s economic environment, raising adequate member capital is critical to a successful start-up.
What is Next?
In the months to come we will finish incorporating and then move into introducing a membership campaign. This is where we will begin to take memberships and build financial capital in order to open. This will be done through online support, community events and fundraisers. This is an opportunity to be recognized as a Founding Member. These initial funds will go towards affording a market feasibility study for Oshkosh, a pertinent step in co-op development.
When we reach our target goal for membership we will secure a site and prepare to open the doors. This process typically takes 1-3 years, but is subject to economic and financial barriers.
We hope you are excited, as our committee is, to provide Oshkosh with healthy, local food options straight from the farms that surround us. Join us as we build a stronger community.
How do I get involved?
Please sign up on our email list to be notified about upcoming events and stay connected with our efforts. Please note if you would like to be a future volunteer on a committee or for an event. And tell your friends! We need your help to build our co-op to represent Oshkosh as a whole.
Stay tuned for membership opportunities.
Bridgette is an Environmental Science major at UWO, seamstress, cook, lover of music, nature, art, and silliness.