Critique of co-op consulting: ‘completely resonant’

Marilyn Scholl, I have been a lifelong member of more than a dozen food co-ops as well as a manager in some and a working member in others. I have founded what is possibly the only truly 100-percent-organic-food co-op in the country.

Years ago, I was an employee board member on a policy governance board. In my hometown at another co-op I am a member of, I attended a “Community Conversation” run by one of your CDS Consulting Co-op staff that was anything but a conversation. It was scripted and controlled, and there was no opportunity to discuss real issues of concern in any depth.

Then, several years later, management claimed that plans for expansion of came out of this conversation. It was all spin.

While there was some brainstorming about add-ons to the existing co-op, it was merely an item on a wish list, not a serious examination of priorities. None of the important issues mentioned at the “conversation” - like GMOs in the co-op or improving the compensation of workers, which were raised as high priorities among members - have been addressed.

I tried to discuss some of my concerns with your staff person, and he was very dismissive.

Now we are being told this unfunded expansion is what members want. This co-op has no retained earnings, there is no plan to raise new capital and, therefore, all of the member equity is being put at risk.

I could go on, but suffice it to say that I find Mimi Yahn's perceptions of what is happening in U.S. food co-ops to be completely resonant to what I have experienced with a half dozen co-ops in my area. Everything she writes rings true with my own experiences at all levels of involvement with food co-ops in recent years.

What are the innumerable inaccuracies that are untrue? Nowhere in this article does Yahn write that you have direct ties to UNFI, although I am sure there are indirect ones because there are social networks that involve co-op managers, National Co-op Grocers, and CDS.

How is it that I attend a party in another city in my state whose food co-op just underwent an expansion and the conversation spontaneously is about “why are all food co-ops starting to be alike when they used to very individualized?”

I have been identifying the practices that have homogenized, and undemocratized, the co-ops I am a member of. At the top of the list is the anti-democracy policy governance model, getting rid of working-member programs (how is it that many of the older coops still have them?), and getting rid of employees on the board.

Can you show me any literature from CDS that promotes a diversity of voices on a co-op board, promotes working- member programs as a way of ensuring a more-active, engaged membership, and promotes employee representation on the board as a means of worker empowerment?

I could go on but will end with attention to your use of the word “legitimate” member control.

What is illegitimate member control of a co-op? It appears to me that the current model of policy governance bestows an “illegitimate” amount of power in a single manager - illegitimate, in the context of a cooperative owned by its members.

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