Iconic Bloomingfoods Co-op starts to “right its ship.”

Rebecca and me at a rally last fall in front of Near West Bloomingfoods store.

Rebecca and me at a rally last fall in front of Near West Bloomingfoods store.

Correction, 6/24/15: I just got a fb message from Michael V. telling me that for the B’Foods Open House meeting there were two sections, each with 17 rows, 6 chairs per row, and about 30 people standing, which makes for about 234 people, NOT 600! Sorry! And thanks, Michael.

If you’ve been following this blog since the fall of 2014, you might remember all the broohaha about long-standing employee disatisfaction that finally galvanized a successful effort to unionize Bloomingfoods, the beloved food co-op that has been a mainstay of alternative consciousness in Bloomington Indiana since 1974. Here’s how I introduced the issue, in October 2014. Also see this and this.

Iconic Bloomingfoods Coop Shows Its Shadow Side?

Since that time, I and many others have attended monthly board meetings and periodic member forums, the energy of dissatisfaction building and building, until finally, on June 9, 2015, the General Manager resigned and everybody heaved a sigh of relief. This was a needed first step taken by a board that had since added two (or three?) new members and had gradually and subtly moved from its years-long default position of doing whatever the GM wanted to understanding and acting independently.

Within a few more days, 40 management positions were eliminated, with more to come. The urgency is real. Lucky’s, an alternative grocery out of Colorado that aims to sell organic and local food cheaply, came to town a month ago, and since then Bloomingfoods’ sales have dropped 17% (over its four stores). And, when you add in all the “natural” and organic foods that conventional grocery chains like Wal-Mart and Kroger now feature, and the promise of a new Whole Foods store in 2016, clearly Bloomingfoods, and other iconic food coops all across the country that spearheaded the movement towards real food all those decades ago, are victims of their own philosophical and marketing success. No longer is eating well strange, alternative, kooky. No longer are food coops experiencing gains of 20-30% annually. Now that private equity funds have poured in, the movement towards healthy eating has gone mainstream.

Last night I attended a Member/Owner OpenHouse set up by the Bloomingfoods board, to let us know what has been going on with the reorganization, spurred on by the assessment and guidance they — or rather, WE — are receiving from the National Coop Grocers Association, which serves 150 co-ops nationally, and has been brought in during this crucial transition to help stem the bleeding which, according to the NCGA, is the worst they have seen. Though food co-ops nationwide are going through hard times, for Bloomingfoods, “the path to solve for cash-positive is the most difficult we’ve ever encountered.”

Last night’s turnout was also unprecedented for the NCGA. Bloomingfoods is a large co-op, with 12,000 members, and I’d estimate that fully 600 of them attended last night’s meeting. Though the board had wisely reserved a large room in the convention center, there were not enough chairs, and people lined the walls, many of them waiting for their turn to speak. I think we were all surprised to realize how deeply we all care for our beloved coop which started out as a buying club in the early ’70s, and only recently, as a result of this needed contraction, retired its first, tiny store — which, by the way, had been losing money for years.

After a short slide show of graphs from the NCGA folks that alerted us both to our predicament and its national context, the microphone was turned over to the member/owners present, with lots of warnings to be civil, to not speak too long, and so on. I was surprised. Do they need to tell us to be civil? We are always civil here, so civil in this community, by and large, that the former GM and his minions got away with way too much stasis for way too many years.

Immediately, the line was long, and then longer, as member after member got up to speak, both young and old, the old ones mentioning just how many decades they have been frequenting Bloomingfoods, and saying that it’s not just local and organic food and prices that bring us back, it’s the atmosphere. As Charlotte Zietlow, an iconic Bloomingtonian herself in her early 80s, said into the microphone, “If I go into Kroger or Lucky’s, they are so large that my feet hurt and I grow confused. At Bloomingfoods, everybody’s always very friendly and kind. I decided a long time ago that if I can’t get it at Bloomingfoods, I don’t need it.”

Though we were warned repeatedly not to comment, but simply to ask questions — one question each, please — and hand in written comments to the board afterwards, everybody in line had things to say, and none of them were confined to one question. That the board sought to confine comments to questions led to agitation, a sense of revolt and dismay — and then, simply, “disobedience.” Otherwise, an atmosphere of both deep listening and real feeling pervaded that large oblong room for the entire two hours of this first open meeting since the long-standing trouble ignited. I didn’t take any pictures. I thought others would and I would pick them up. Sorry!

But Ryan did take pictures at the Time-Bank meeting two days ago, and posted them on facebook. Here’s one, I’m in the back, light pants, lime-green crocs. Gail, who took the incredible Solstice faery bubble picture, sits on my left. Her husband Steven, who spoke at last night’s Open House of the need for Bloomingfoods to begin to significantly support its local producers, sits next to her.



Which reminds me. When an aborted movement to develop an alternative Bloomington currency came and went, at least a decade ago, I heard that most of the “Blooming Hours” ended up at Bloomingfoods which meant that, since their suppliers wouldn’t take them, they had to absorb the loss. A time-bank seems to me a better idea, simpler, and helps us together both increase cultural resilience and dive below money itself which may be what, according to Charles Eisenstein, lies at the root of pervasive cultural corruption in the first place.

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