More than 400 food co-op board members, general managers and staff from across the U.S. met on the campus of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst this month to share ideas, explore issues of diversity and inclusion and bolster the success of cooperative businesses in an increasingly competitive natural foods marketplace.
The conference was hosted by the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA), a federation of 35 food co-ops and startup initiatives across New England locally owned by more than 90,000 people, along with local members Franklin Community Co-op—which operates Green Fields Market in Greenfield and McCuster’s Market in Shelburne Falls—and River Valley Co-op in Northampton.
“With its rich cooperative history and current role as a hub for food co-op development, Western Massachusetts is a model for the rest of the country,” said Pat Sterner, Senior Development Director of Domestic Programs at NCBA CLUSA, which has managed the conference since 2015.
Organized around the theme, “Disrupting the Future: Cooperative Food and the Next Generation,” the 2016 CCMA Conference addressed strategies to compete with other natural foods retailers, hiring the next generation of cooperators, financing the future of the food co-op movement and reaching out to new demographics by being deliberate about diversity and inclusion. A keynote by lifelong social justice activist Shirley Sherrod was particularly relevant to this discussion.
“This is an exciting time for the food co-op movement,” said Erbin Crowell, Executive Director of the NFCA, which is based in Shelburne Falls. “Co-ops have long been pioneers and innovators in the local food system and this conference was an important opportunity to address new challenges and opportunities in the marketplace.”
Crowell, who also serves as an adjunct lecturer at UMass, where he teaches a course on the cooperative movement, also noted the university’s cooperative legacy. The Campus Center, the site of this year’s conference, is named for Murray Lincoln, a UMass alum, founder of NCBA CLUSA member Nationwide Insurance and a member of the Cooperative Hall of Fame. The campus library, Crowell added, is named after African American scholar W.E.B. DuBois, co-founder of the NAACP and promoter of cooperative enterprise as a tool for economic empowerment.
During a June 11 awards luncheon sponsored by National Co+op Grocers, numerous cooperators were recognized for their innovation and outstanding contributions to the food co-op sector. This year’s Cooperative Excellence Award went to City Center Market in Cambridge, Minnesota. There was a tie in the 2016 Cooperative Service Award category—both Sean Doyle of Seward Community Co-op and Sharon Murphy of Whole Foods Co-op were recognized.
The Cooperative Innovation/Achievement Award went to Central Co-op, the first grocery store in the U.S. to shift to a solidarity co-op model, where members and employees own equal shares of the business. Marshall Kovitz of La Montanita Food Co-op in Albuquerque, New Mexico was posthumously recognized with the Cooperative Board Service Award. The beloved founding owner and board member of La Montanita for 40 years, Marshall was remembered for his guidance, loyalty and dedication to the co-op.
The final award, Startup of the Year, was presented by the Food Co-op Initiative and went to Renaissance Community Co-op in Greensboro, North Carolina. On track to open later this year, the Renaissance Community Co-op will end an 18-year-old food desert and bring good jobs, healthy living options and community wealth to a neighborhood that struggles with obesity, diabetes, unemployment and poverty.
The 2017 CCMA Conference will be held in Minneapolis, Minnesota. During the final plenary of this year’s conference, Crowell and Sterner invited Anne Reynolds, Executive Director of the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives, to the stage to announce a pending transfer of management.
NCBA CLUSA, the University of Wisconsin and the Cooperative Development Foundation are currently in the “final stages” of completing a transfer agreement, Crowell said, adding that a formal announcement of the transfer is expected later this month.
Reynolds told CCMA conference attendees that the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives is committed to continuing conference innovations put in place by NCBA CLUSA over the past two years.
“We, too, are committed to transparency and building engagement among the CCMA community,” she said, adding that the 2017 CCMA Conference Planning Committee and Host Committee would be appointed within the next 30 – 45 days.
Patrick Sayler of Co-op Natural Foods in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, said he looks forward to the future of the CCMA Conference. “Networking and learning about other co-ops that share the same struggles and the same successes is eye opening,” he said. “I always leave CCMA with a renewed sense of purpose, a head swimming with ideas and a notebook full of new friends that I can lean on.”