Food co-ops today are facing big challenges that can sometimes pit management against member-owners.
Here in New Mexico, a group called Take Back the Co-op is organizing members of the state’s largest food cooperative to voice their concerns about recent changes at the business.
Co-op leadership held meetings last week to talk to members about the changes.
La Montañita Co-Op has six locations in Albuquerque, Gallup and Santa Fe, and prides itself on being local and sustainable.
Earlier this year, the co-op’s board of directors decided to start offering conventional produce on what was, until then, an all-organic vegetable aisle. The board says it was a way to lower prices—something co-op members said they wanted when they were surveyed.
But it was a decision that touched a raw nerve.
"La Montañita in my view is moving towards an economic system that exploits all of us," said Eduardo Krosilovsky at last week’s meeting in Santa Fe. His feelings echo those of other members of the Take Back the Co-op group—that the recent changes at La Montañita resemble a corporate approach to business, rather than the locally focused, environmentally conscious approach the co-op claims to have.
"It's moving from one end of the continuum—the end where I signed up to be a member—to the other end, to the end that is inhabited by Wall Street," Krasilovsky said as the audience applauded.
"Look, I'm not up here trying to defend anything because there's nothing to defend," said general manager Dennis Hanley, who Take Back the Coop is accusing of creating a hostile work environment and retaliating against employees who’ve expressed concerns about changes. The group lists a number of complaints from current and former employees on their website—many of them anonymous. Some even went so far as to file complaints with the National Labor Relations Board.
Hanley says the accusations are just false.
"For anyone to be terminated from the Co-op, for anyone to be retaliated, we have absolutely no record of that for over 20 years," he said.
The Take Back the Co-Op’s accusations go farther, though. They say the board has refused to meet with them to talk about how the business is being run. And they also make the shaky claim that a consulting group and a marketing firm La Montañita hired are part of a vast conspiracy to corporatize co-ops across the country.
But there are also many co-op members who say the changes are inevitable—even necessary.
"I think some very had choices have to be made," said Talitha Arnold, one of several members who spoke in support of the board at the Santa Fe meeting. "We can’t be purists. If in fact the co-op is going to be able to expand into markets where people don’t have the kind of disposable income that some people in Santa Fe do, they’ve got to diversify in their products as well."
In today’s economy, La Montañita has to compete with corporate giants like Whole Foods or Sprouts. Even Wal-Mart has a big share of the organic vegetable market now. Expanding inventory and introducing things like conventional produce can be a way to cut costs and compete. But does it compromise the co-op’s commitment to local farmers and the environment?
Member Patrick Boyles says it doesn’t have to be an either-or choice.
"I believe that there does need to be accessibility," he said. "But the question is, at what point are you bringing in Coca-Cola? Local food, if that’s what we’re aiming for, really needs to be helped out by the co-ops to try and make it more accessible."
Boyles and other Take Back the Co-op folks say this goes beyond the organic food debate and market pressures La Montañita is facing. Members are also owners; they’re invested emotionally, ideologically, and financially.
"We own the co-op," said Django Zeaman, one of the leaders of the Take Back the Co-op movement. "If this had happened at a store that we shopped at but didn’t co-own, a lot of us would probably stop shopping there and go somewhere else. Maybe we’d write a nasty letter to the CEO and say ‘please stop doing this.’ But this is very different. We own it—we can actually change it."
And they might indeed be changing it very soon. Take Back the Coop has already collected the 1,600 petition signatures it needs to hold a special meeting where members will vote on kicking out La Montañita’s board and general manager. The date for that meeting hasn’t been set yet.
KUNM's Public Health New Mexico Project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Con Alma Health Foundation, and the McCune Charitable Foundation. Find out more at publichealthnm.org.
Editor's Note: Ed Williams is a member at La Montañita, and the co-op is a long-time underwriter of KUNM programming. Questions? Contact KUNM General Manager Richard Towne.