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Anson Stevens-Bollen

Nothing's Wrong with the Co-op

La Montañita faces grave danger from the Take Back the Co-op Movement

September 19, 2016, 5:00 pm

You may have heard about a movement called “Take Back the Co-op” and you may have been asked to sign a petition calling for a special membership meeting for La Montañita Co-op. If you haven’t already signed it, I hope you’ll read this before you do.

This is just my opinion, but I am the person this newspaper pays to write an opinion column about food, something I’ve been doing for newspapers since 1999. I’m also a member of the Co-op who’s been shopping there for more than 20 years. So I want to see it succeed.

If 1,600 people sign the petition, the group will be able to call the meeting, at which they intend to vote out the entire current board and elect their own slate of candidates; fire the general manager, consultants who have worked with the co-op for decades and other employees; get rid of all conventional produce (except local, pesticide-free produce). They also want to dilute the power of the board and require members to vote on a wide array of decisions that have been delegated to the board and general manager as the co-op has grown from a group of friends to five stores, 17,000 member families and a statewide distribution network for local farmers.

If this effort succeeds it will gut the co-op of its institutional memory and leadership and hand that power over to a small group of members who have the luxury of time to spend on it. It will reverse more than 15 years of the co-op’s efforts to lower prices and expand access to people of all socio-economic brackets. It may very well destroy La Montañita and the important infrastructure it has built to support access to affordable local, organic agriculture across New Mexico.

Ask yourself: Do you see evidence that the co-op has diverged so far from what it has always been and what you want it to be that it should be completely destroyed and rebuilt?

The co-op is in the middle of a long period of adjustment to an environment in which it is no longer unique in offering organic food. It is a national model for the distribution of locally grown food. And its doors have stayed open, despite massive competition in the natural foods market, because board members and general managers have taken a creative and careful approach to growth and cutting costs.

And now, just as it celebrates its 40th birthday, the co-op is being attacked by a small group of people who insist that the co-op be responsive to them as individuals and to reflect their specific set of priorities instead of the broad values that have guided the membership for decades. Demanding a return to democratic rule means the co-op will be controlled by a small group of unelected people who will have great power only because they have a surplus of time. Removing the current leadership structure means reversing the co-op’s progress on making groceries less expensive, which means rejecting access by anyone not rich enough to be able to spend whatever they want on food.

I interviewed Dorothy Finnigan and Django Zeaman, two of the co-founders of “Take Back the Co-op” and its designated spokespeople. They told me they were originally motivated when the co-op added the “Clean 15,” 15 fruits and vegetables with the lowest pesticide levels. How many of you are able to find and afford exclusively organic produce? Most of us buy some conventional produce because we have to—or we choose to.

“Conventional produce gives people more choices, a bigger assortment and a lower price point,” says Robin Seydel, who has been involved with La Montañita for more than 30 years, first as a volunteer and now as the newsletter manager and membership coordinator. “There are too many people who can’t afford quality food,” she says. Seydel understands the group’s concerns but she does not support the petition.

Petition organizers are also deeply suspicious of National Cooperative Grocers, a co-op of co-ops that has negotiated a national contract with UNFI (United National Foods), the company that distributes a lot of the stuff you buy: Organic Valley milk, Bob’s Red Mill grains, Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies etc. Membership in NCG also makes your food cheaper. 

Members of this group have demanded the closure of the co-op location that opened in 2013 on Albuquerque’s West side. It’s not making money, but the co-op’s primary driving force is not turning a profit—it’s providing access to healthy food and the cooperative model as broadly as possible. The Rio Grande store in Albuquerque didn’t turn a profit for three years after it opened and the Wild Sage Co-op in Gallup wasn’t profitable for seven years. The West side store still has time to turn around and co-op General Manager Dennis Hanley should be given more time to do it.

La Montañita has been fortunate to have hired managers with professional experience in running grocery stores. That’s a good thing.

“People don’t understand the incredible impact we’ve had for over 200 producers through the local distribution center—and it was these outside general managers who did that,” says Martha Whitman who started as a volunteer and then managed the Nob Hill store for a short time in 1987. Whitman has been involved with the co-op ever since, including spending 10 years on the board of directors.

With 30 years of dedication to the co-op, she’s the “outside consultant” this group wants fired.

Finnigan and Zeaman, who moved to Santa Fe four years ago, told me: “This is a story about personal and corporate greed.” They believe that Whitman and Hanley are making changes to the co-op for their own personal enrichment and that the current board is made up of people who have been “duped and hoodwinked” by outside corporate interests.

But there is no evidence for this.

Robin Seydel, Martha Whitman and many others have kicked their own asses to make this co-op the success that it is. They helped build this thing, they’ve kept it going and they’re willing to keep doing it so you and I don’t have to.

These are not people you need to take the co-op back from.

The board needs to be more transparent and more communicative with members. And members need to remember the cooperative part of co-op. If you really believe in affordable access to high-quality local and organic food then co-op is the best friend you have. Work with it, not against it.


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