This will be my only post for the weekend. BTW: if you want to see something interesting, go to Laura Bruno’s website, where she comments on the latest Corbett Report.
I haven’t had time to watch this report yet, so busy have I been with our own local food initiatives!
I spent most of yesterday at two meetings, both of which I had very much looked forward to.
In the morning, from 10 to noon I participated in the first quarterly “Member Forum” put on by Bloomingfoods Co-op to formally open up discussion among Co-op members and members of the Board of Directors. These forums are an outgrowth of the successful push for unionization (see this and this) among the co-op staff workers that rocked the seemingly complacent world of the Co-op Board starting last September. (Union members will meet with the Board in February to hammer out agreements.)
Then, in the afternoon, I attended the Hibernation Celebration (annual meeting and pie party) of the Bloomington Community Orchard.
I left the house around 9:30 am and didn’t return until 4 p.m. Rare, for me. And what a day it was! Extremely invigorating and encouraging on both fronts — plus, a remarkable synchronicity that capped it all off.
Bloomington Co-op Member Forum
The forum, attended by 40 members and 3 board members, after a formal 20-minute presentation by the board, decided to change the rows of seats into a circle of chairs. But even earlier, one of the board members had skillfully relaxed the group by asking us all to open to one another’s views without accusation or prejudice, as a way to transform the tone of the interaction between the board and the membership. Just sitting there, hearing this, I could feel the atmosphere shift and soften.
For the next two hours, we engaged in a warm, interesting, stimulating conversational give-and-take that included close listening, covered a lot of ground, and brought out a number of facts. For example, in the last few board elections, only 300 or so members voted, out of a total membership list of 12,000 — or is it 13,000? nobody was sure — and what’s more, both positions ran unopposed, so why vote? And why, someone asked, aren’t there more people who want to be on the board? Of course, as one of the board members pointed out, “as a result of what happened in September, that’s now changed!” Yep!
During the unionization push, many of us had noted how our wonderful cooperative seems to have morphed into what feels like a corporation — with a hierarchy, little communication with staff workers, more and more layers of administration, low wages, and a lack of transparency in decision-making. One wonders if that’s the natural tendency of any human organization that grows too big, as this one may have done, by recently building another brand new store in one neighborhood that put its financials in jeopardy. On and on, you can probably get the drift of what our discussions were about. So like America, our local co-op, with little voter participation reflecting the seemingly monolithic nature of governance.
But in our case, here, locally, we can do something about the natural tendency to grow bigger materially at the expense of quality of life, and in this case, specifically, at the expense of staff employees’ quality of life. (As someone pointed out, the co-op board could have chosen to put its profits into increasing workers’ wages rather than building a new store.) I.e., it could have chosen quality growth rather than quantity.
I brought up what is perhaps a naive suggestion, that we investigate the idea of transforming this member-based co-op into a worker co-op, since most of the issues have to do with the staff, and the reason for a member-based co-op (to make sure we get fresh, local food) is no longer relevant, due to the fact that this value is now a very strong current within the mainstream. Some people didn’t seem to grok what I was saying, but two people did remark, correctly, in sort of awe — that this would be a paradigm shift.
So I ask? Is it time for a paradigm shift? I don’t know. But the urge to say what I said just wouldn’t be kept down. So I said it.
In the background of the discussion, and driving the urgency of the meeting, was the fact that two large corporate grocery operations — Whole Foods and Lucky — are coming to town and will be in place by 2016. The original driver that pulsed Bloomingfoods into being, established in 1976, is about to be co-opted by the mainstream.
Unless Bloomingfoods can meet this two-fold challenge to its very existence, it’s over. We all know that. And how to meet it? By somehow reinvigorating the co-operative principles and values that members of Bloomingfoods expect of it. Otherwise, why stay?
Bloomingfoods is one of hundreds? thousands? of local markets that feature fresh local and mostly organic food that grew out of buying clubs in the early ’70s. I belonged to one back then, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We’d check off a list of what bulk foods we wanted for next week, and then go to whatever member’s house the pick-up rotated to that week to get our order that came in paper sacks — one pound of oats, two of brown rice — packed into cardboard boxes.
And now, as I said in the meeting, we do need to realize that, in a sense, we won: we have pushed the mainstream into valuing local and/or organic food. The proof is in the corporate pudding. In the meantime, however, we all agreed, we need to make sure that successful, expanding co-ops like this one do not get co-opted into the corporate model themselves, and we need to, in this case, revisit what makes members decide to shop at the co-op in the first place, rather than what will soon be the case, Whole Foods or Lucky.
I don’t think I’m alone in feeling very encouraged by yesterday’s opening discussion of the myriad issues that swirl around this enormous crisis/opportunity.
Bloomington Community Orchard
At noon I quickly switched gears, and headed over to the History Center, where the Community Orchard winter meeting was to take place from 12:00 to 3:00 p.m. I had been asked to attend, because the Orchard is going to be gifting trees to my Green Acres Neighborhood as part of our ambitious push this year to get a Neighborhood Improvement Grant from the city. Our initial meeting for that grant will be held tomorrow at my house, with a city council person, a person from the HAND Department, a Permaculture Design Group, and, hopefully, someone from the Orchard. Four different group entities participating with the Green Acres group to get this off and running.
So, there I was, at the Orchard meeting, and what a doozy it was! Tremendous energy in this group, after only five years, with an extremely organized non-profit structure and governance that really works, its development efforts extremely successful. Indeed, starting last year, not only do they plan to give away 75 fruit trees (and helping plant them, and showing how to care for them) to city neighborhoods annually, but they now get calls and emails from all over the world. Help! How do we set up a Community Orchard here — in Spain, or Argentina, or Nigeria? (I pick those countries at random, can’t remember the ones actually mentioned at the meeting). Go to their website to see all the ways Bloomington’s Community Orchard is encouraging the growth of local perennial food into our town. Since there is so much interest elsewhere, they are now going to be producing “how to” manuals and other info to help others emulate their highly impactful template.
As I told the group, I was actually present when Amy Countryman first presented her idea to the world. She was a student at IU-SPEA studying for her M.A. and it was time to defend her thesis that advocated putting orchards on public land in communities. As a friend of my son Colin Cudmore, now of the Garden Tower Project, she had invited the two of us to attend her slide show presentation, and was, understandably, nervous! Her teacher, Burney Fisher was of course present, and I think Lee Huss, Bloomington city gov’s Urban Forester, was too, though I’m not sure.
In any case, afterwards, Lee Huss invited Amy to actually manifest her vision, by presenting her with a piece of public land to create Community Orchard. And the rest, as they say, is herstory. Amy wasn’t there yesterday. This project has become so successful that it doesn’t even require its founder to be present at its annual meetings.
At their meeting I heard that last year the city had told the Orchard people that they had another piece of public land for them, if they wanted to create another public orchard. They declined, having already determined that the direction for them that made the most sense and had the most impact was to form relationships with other entities to get fruit and other perennials everywhere in the city, and to help other communities do the same. Thus their neighborhood tree project, with Green Acres as the second recipient.
(In this direction they are acting in a very “permacultural” manner, since one of the ways to define permaculture is simply to say, “Permaculture — is relationships!”)
Okay, here’s to the synchronicities. There were two of them, both from that afternoon Hibernation Celebration. I’m going to tell them backwards, starting with me sitting at the table with the Outreach Committee and being introduced to a man who came in late. In short order, I discovered that he not only does he read this Exopermaculture blog, but he is a friend of my son Colin from four years ago, the year when Colin moved her from Massachusetts! I vaguely remember Colin speaking of this cool guy, Chad, who, it turns out, is one of the residents of the newly established Evergreen Village, where the first neighborhood orchard was planted, in November. Small world.
Okay, well that was a cool synchronicity, but the one that really blew my socks off came earlier. I had just arrived in the room, where about 25 people were milling about, standing up, eating a potluck lunch. I got my lunch, walked to two young men both of whom looked kind of shy, and introduced myself.
The way I introduce myself here in Bloomington is to say, “I’m from the Green Acres Neighborhood Garden,” since most people recognize that name. Well, you wouldn’t believe what happened next! Not only did one of these two young men, Andrew, recognize it, but he lives just down the street from our DeKist house, on DeKist! He has passed the garden everyday on his bike ride to IU, and always wondered what it was about. And, he had just been telling the other young man (who he had just met) about the “Green Acres Neighborhood Garden” (at least he knew the name, since we’ve finally put up a sign). WOW! Bingo! Zowie!
Needless to say, that powered the rest of my day. I told him about our Green Acres Community Supported Dinners to start tomorrow evening, three evenings a week. He’s excited. He’s coming.