I’ve been sitting here, trying to figure out how to write about my relationship with Bloomingfoods, our iconic co-op that has been enduring seemingly endless struggles to survive in an environment resulting from increased corporate adoption of the value of organic, bulk, and local foods.
This week I attended three Bloomingfoods meetings, one after another. The second meeting generated headlines in the local papers.
I report here on my own experience.
Along with over 100 other people — I presume all or most of them “member-owners” of the co-op — I was in the audience that heard about Elm Heights closing the night before it appeared in the press. Called by the new General Manager, the meeting was billed as a presentation with Q & A about fiscal matters.
It was good to see so many people turning out for this event, given that two days before, a Forum called by the Board to discuss Member Participation in Bloomingfoods had drawn exactly eight Members. Given that this meeting was held in the public library auditorium, which holds maybe 200 people, the disappointment among us was palpable.
However, now I wonder if most of the people in the audience at the Fiscal meeting were those who had loaned the co-op money to build the new Elm Heights store. All 125 of them had just been sent their first communication ever about the status of their loans. I wish I had thought to call for a show of hands at that meeting. Were most people in that meeting investors? BTW: we learned that the personal loans are all secondary to the bank loan, which must be paid off first.
Then, last night, my third and final, the monthly meeting of the Board (and the GM), open to Members (to be followed by an executive session). I attended the beginning of that one, too. Along with three other Members, two of whom I had also seen at the first meeting.
Three meetings in one week, with vast differences in attendance. Yet what is a “member-owned” co-op if it is not an ongoing cooperation among equals? I know that’s what it used to be. That’s what a lot of co-ops across this country, now being marginalized or made into look-alikes by corporations, used to be. Back in the ’70s, when we all got together and started buying in bulk, delivering it to one of our apartments, and then dividing it up as a group. That’s how I remember starting in Cambridge, Mass. That’s how it started here.
But what’s really happening now? Bloomingfoods has, supposedly, over 12,000 members. I heard that figure at all three meetings. And yet only at the first meeting (the Forum) did I discover — only because I asked — that this figure includes members from the very beginning, forty years ago! How many of these are still active? How many have died? How many have moved away from this college town? These figures are, at this point, according to the Board president, unknown. (I’ve heard since that they could be known. That every state has some kind of procedure for public entities with members to figure this out.)
But be that what it may. What seems to be happening now is that we do have increasing transparency from the Board and the new GM. You could feel the relief and gratitude of those in attendance as we listened/watched the GM’s revealing powerpoint presentation during a spring storm that included tornado sirens.
Plus we are more and more aware of the fact that effective communication between the Board and the Members is broken. Case in point: Yesterday, I called the main number given on the Bloomingfoods website, and it’s not in service!
The only way I found out about any of the three meetings this week was through third parties. I did not receive any kind of official notice. Somehow, I was dropped from the email list. When?
While I appreciate the newfound transparency, I do very much wonder about the viability of this relic from the ’70s. For that is what Bloomingfoods feels like now. An old idealistic model trying to survive in a cutthroat landscape, by ekeing out some kind of “market share” in the era of organic food at Whole Foods, Kroger, Lucky’s — even Aldi!
What does that fact tell us?
And what about truly local food? How much local food does Bloomingfoods carry? Not much; not nearly enough. We get our “organic” food trucked in from afar, the way the big stores do. The one aspect of Bloomingfoods that did distinguish it from the big stores was the wonderful Garden Center at the East side Co-op store. The Garden Center closed in the first flush of the initial cost-cutting. NCG sent in an interim General Manager to begin the process. As a result, the “austerity” program that Bloomingfoods has been on in an effort to stem the flow of its meager savings out to pay for shortfalls from especially the Elm Heights store, has been brutal. Rather like the IMF with Greece.
And the new Elm Heights store, built with member loans and a bank loan. Who decided that this store should be built? How many other co-ops also face this kind of cost-cutting as a result of fancy new stores built during the era of their membership in the NCG? Reminds me of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, and John Perkins Confessions of an Economic Hit Man — how capitalism goes into developing countries, tells the government that they need a new dam, paid for with loans, which can never be repaid. Is this what happened here? Many of us lamented what felt like the “corporate culture” infecting Bloomingfoods during the final years of the 20-year tenure of the old G.M. But is it so different now? Is the NCG itself a conscious or unconscious iteration of the same or similar corporate culture?
To me, this all leads to one conclusion: how can we get back to local? Or maybe even for the first time, get local? Stop “scaling up” in the interests of “efficiencies.” That desire always tends to result in corporate infection. “Well then,” I hear, “there will be lots of products that we can no longer carry.” I respond, “So what?” We need to begin to learn to actually live within our means. Anything less, at this late date in the unraveling of our rapacious civilization, is sheer hypocrisy.
Let’s face it, folks. What is at issue is the survival of our planetary ecosystem, in the face of which we need to start scaling down the massive energy needs dictated by our own comfortable lifestyles.
Last night, at the part of the Board meeting where Member-Owners were allowed to speak, I found myself speaking up. While verbally appreciating what the Board and GM are doing to try to right our little supposedly “cooperative” ship in the midst of the massive corporate storming of Bloomington’s gates, and while recognizing the fact that we must downsize and consolidate in order to survive, I also found myself wondering out loud: rather than just trying to hunker down and preserve market share, is there a way that we could re-imagine the very mission of Bloomingfoods to reflect the changed landscape of today? What are local food needs now? How could we revision Bloomingfoods to actually meet those needs in a way that a non-co-op model could not? What might that look like?
I don’t remember exactly what I said, but that’s the gist of it. I do remember the tone, remember not being reactive, or polarized. (For which I am grateful — to myself!) Remember feeling a sense of being there with others with shared purpose, all wondering what it would be like to pull together in new ways for the common good.
It turns out that others are also thinking these thoughts, and that there is going to be a group starting up to discuss revisioning Bloomingfoods. I will be thrilled to participate as a member of this group.