Contemporary food co-ops have begun important discussions in their organizations around equity and inclusion. As part of that process, they’ve had to accept and deal with some painful truths that their co-ops have not always been perceived as inclusive, especially through the shopping experience. Food co-op customers in particular are often skewed toward a certain demographic—white, educated, affluent people.
Outreach to those who are not white or who are lower income has historically been limited, and in some areas food co-ops gained a reputation for being exclusionary or elitist. Jade Barker and Patricia Cumbie’s research presented as personal narratives on race and food co-ops in the booklet, Everyone Welcome? Narratives of Race and Food Co-ops highlighted some of the reasons for these practices and perceptions. Some central dilemmas include white bias and mistaken assumptions about what different communities might want or expect from a food co-op. This has prompted some co-ops to do a deeper evaluation of their business practices and how they can remove barriers to participation in the co-op and be more inclusive organizations.
Jeanie Wells is an operational consultant who said that cultural competence and cultivating a diverse leadership is a huge imperative for food co-ops who are invested in meeting the needs of their communities. She found herself feeling concerned at a conference recently where there was racial and economic diversity amongst participants, but most of the conference facilitators in the room were white. Part of the issue from her perspective is developing co-op leadership capacity, as well as white leaders have work to do be effective allies and promote change in the sector..
Part of that leadership work includes figuring out how to balance competing values in the marketplace. Is the co-op’s purpose to sell certain products, or is it there to meet the needs of the community? How is the co-op acting as a community-owned asset? Food co-ops today are grappling with those questions.
Wells cited as an example how sometimes core food co-op members and leaders, demand that the co-op’s product line should be very specifically focused. That perspective could offer challenges if another priority is also to reach out to new people. The current food system is complex, as are consumer needs. “Co-ops are there to meet a need. Inclusion is a big part of our cooperative values and should be a part of our strategic vision.”
A retailer has to be aware of reflecting unconscious bias, and may be setting up a barrier to people who don’t share the same values or have the income to purchase premium products. “As retailers, we have a real opportunity for co-ops to show how the model can be flexible,” Wells said. “It’s imperative on the organization to meet community needs, not just the board or management needs.”
“We have to tread carefully, especially regarding product mix. We need to be engaging in the community in real ways.” Doing this involves outreach that includes attending neighborhood associations, networking with community leaders, and building relationships with faith and social organizations. “We need to find ways to share the things we know with everyone who needs what we have to offer, and also being open to whole new ways of doing things.”
Martha Whitman is management and governance consultant who has worked with clients navigating some of these dynamic issues in co-ops. From her perspective, that’s why the promotion of senior leadership of color is so critical. It brings much more to the table when it comes to strategy and decision-making. “It is a challenge to find people of color in senior leadership in our co-ops, and that needs to change. It sets the tone to hire, develop and promote people. You need a dedicated development plan so people are trained and everyone gets chances to advance.”
In addition to that, Whitman said, hiring people of color and people from local communities provides shoppers a wider view of who is welcome at the co-op. “Not all our shoppers, or potential shoppers are white and middle class. We could do a better job of making people feel welcome and offering ethnic or cultural foods and accommodating their needs.”
Whitman thinks the question of product mix is one of the compelling issues food co-ops face that is intertwined with issues of racial and economic equity and justice.
“People are asking: Should the co-op provide food people ask for? Or hold certain values around food? How do you claim your niche as a retailer? These are important conversations I am having with my clients.”
Whitman said when this is navigated well, the co-op benefits from positive word of mouth. “It promotes a comfort level with the co-op. That you feel like the people who are there ‘speak your language.’ You don’t have to experience the co-op through an all-white filter.”
Wells concurred that continued dialogue about inclusion and retailing is imperative. “The answer food co-ops arrived at in the 70s is not going to be the same for the next generation of cooperators.”
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