Community Kitchens, Online Ordering, Price Accessibility, and the Future of the Co-op
Sarah Walz, New Pioneer Food Co-op Board President
On April 19, New Pioneer held the third in a series of member planning workshops. These workshops were an opportunity for members to share their visions for the future of the Co-op and to provide input to the Board as we go forward with strategic planning.
Members attending these meetings were asked three questions: How should the Co-op expand its support of local food production?, What should the Co-op be or look like in the next five to ten years?, and What is New Pi’s appropriate role as a community and in the community? We heard a number of interesting and creative ideas. What follows are some ideas that had popular support from members, or that I personally found provocative—remember, I am just one member of the Board.
There was considerable support for developing ways to extend the growing season, including canning and root cellar facilities. A number of members suggested the idea of a community kitchen that might be used by members for canning, education, prepared meals, and used by small food producers. A special fund or endowment to provide capital for the expansion of local food production was also suggested.
Many members expressed a strong desire to connect directly with growers and other local producers, and to help extend the range of local products. New Pi’s website could serve as a central source for contact information on local producers. One member proposed a map showing where our local foods come from; others wanted more farm tours.
The desire for more information and education came up frequently. Members clearly look to the Co-op for accurate information and advice on issues, from food safety and policy to sustainability and nutrition. More product training was seen as essential by some, while others looked to the website as an efficient way to disseminate information. One member suggested the development of educational materials (online or print) that our members could take into their community to advocate for organic, safe, and/or local foods. Of particular interest was information related to school lunch programs, recipes and nutrition information for those on a fixed budget, and assistance with special diets (vegetarian/vegan, gluten-free, etc.). Member blogging was suggested as a way to connect members who have special food interests or restrictive diets, as well as a way to build community among our far-flung membership. Not surprisingly there was much call for adding classes and recipes.
Online ordering and delivery services were suggested. Our members in Cedar Rapids would like to have scheduled deliveries for non-produce items, perhaps to coincide with the local farmers market. They felt this could be a way to recruit new members and extend the reach of organic foods. Online voting was also mentioned several times.
For the future of our stores, members suggested attaining more and better dining facilities, owning rather than renting a Coralville location, relocating the Iowa City store within the downtown to get it out of the floodplain, and allowing expansion. Our members in CR would love a New Pi store there, but would also welcome our assistance in forming a locally owned and controlled CR co-op.
Another proposal was to form a stronger alliance with other local businesses—that advocating for issues of community concern and the value of buying and investing locally should not be the burden of the Co-op alone.
Finally, the issue of price accessibility was a hot topic at one of our meetings with some members asking us to follow Wal-Mart’s model. While I am not sure what to make of the Wal-Mart comment given our Co-op’s mission, with its emphasis on employee pay and benefits and the ethics of food production, I do think finding a way to make healthy food accessible to more people is an idea worthy of our thoughtful consideration and I would urge members to give this some creative thought. And if you haven’t already signed your dividend check over to the Local Foods Connection (or made a donation to the Crisis Center), perhaps this will prompt you to do so.
I know my fellow board members would want me to mention that additional services and programs and improvements to the stores will require additional expense. To accomplish some of these things the Board will have to weigh priorities and make trade-offs. But I think a number of the ideas shared are also opportunities to more fully live out our mission and to extend and strengthen our membership and the market for local, organic, and sustainable foods.
On behalf of the Board of Directors I want to thank everyone who took the time to attend our workshops and urge those of you who could not (including producers and staff), to go online, review the notes, and respond with your own ideas. This is your chance to share your vision for the future of the Co-op. The Board will look to your ideas for guidance as we focus on our plan.