The Seven Cooperative Principles in Action at Orcas Food Co-op

When you think of your local food co-op here on Orcas, what do you picture? The fresh produce department? Running into your friends and neighbors next to the bulk bins? The beautiful view from our commons space? A great place to grab a hot cup of homemade soup on a cold day? What about our monthly board meetings? Yearly Director elections? Did those come to mind? Ongoing community education initiatives?

If you are like many other folks in our community, the brick and mortar store remains central in your mind- because that is what you interact with on a day to day basis. However, we want you to know that we are so much more. Orcas Food Co-op runs a grocery store, but the Co-op is not just a grocery store. 

 

At the core, what makes us a co-op is our economic and organization structure, based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity. Furthermore, cooperatives of all shapes and sizes (grocery stores, utility companies, employee-owned businesses and more) are all governed by the same Seven Cooperative Principles: 

                  1. Voluntary and Open Membership

                  2. Democratic Member Control

                  3. Member Economic Participation

                  4. Autonomy and Independence

                  5. Education, Training and Information

                  6. Cooperation Among Cooperatives

                  7. Concern for Community

Our business is founded on these principles, and provides the grocery store as a service to our Member-Owners. To complete the picture, let’s explore the ways that Orcas Food Co-op practices these principles on the ground. 

Voluntary and Open Membership

We welcome everyone to join our cooperative because we want everyone to have equitable and affordable access to healthy foods. Just pay your one-time investment of $240 and you are a Co-op Member-Owner! To increase the accessibility, we offer a monthly installment plan of just $10, and your Owner benefits start right away. Folks are welcome to leave the Co-op as well. While we always hate to lose a Member-Owner, we will happily refund your investment or donate it to an island family in need. 

Democratic Member Control

This is your Co-op! Own it! Every year we hold open elections for interested Member-Owners to run for our Board of Directors. These nine Directors employ Policy Governance to set policies, support the management staff, and represent Owner voices in our decisions. All Co-op Owners are always welcome, with time set aside at the beginning and end of each meeting for Owner comments. We would love to see you there!

There are lots of other ways to make your voice heard. Major policy initiatives are presented to our Owners for feedback before being adopted. Last year we did the first of our planned annual shopper surveys, asking our Owners and customers to let us know how we can better serve their needs. We adopted our long-term goals after presenting them to Owners for comments and revising based on your feedback. This year we are formed a Strategic Planning Taskforce composed of Directors and Management Team Members. They are working to draft a plan to inform our growth over the next 5-10 years. This process is still in its infancy, but there will be multiple opportunities to participate in this process as well.  

 Member Economic Participation

Our Owners are equal partners in the Co-op, and have equal voices in the capital of our business. As our Co-op matures, we will have additional capital for reserves, expansion, or to pay out in Owners Dividends. How these funds are utilized is determined by the Board of Directors, democratically elected by our Member-Owners. 

Autonomy and Independence

We are an independent organization, which allows our Member-Owners and Board to make the best decisions for our unique community. Last year we joined the larger business services cooperative National Co-op Grocers, but our agreement with them maintains our autonomy and commitment to democratic self-governance. The benefits we have gotten from joining them have been many (Co+op Deals sales, better distributor pricing, organizational support and training), with most programs being voluntary, and we would be free to leave if our Owners determined that it was not in our best interest to continue the relationship.

Education, Training and Information

We provide ongoing education to our Member-Owners in the form of print and online newsletters, in-store signage, hosting workshops, lectures and classes in the Co-op Commons and around the island. We want you to have all the information you need to make informed decisions that are in alignment with your needs and values. Beyond our Owners, we are also committed to on-going education for our Board of Directors and Staff through professional development and training to develop our skills and serve our Cooperative community more effectively. 

Cooperation Among Cooperatives

One of the best parts of joining the National Co-op Grocers was easier access to the ideas and innovations of other food cooperatives as they navigate the same challenges in local sourcing and the natural and organic food world. Rather than treating one another as competition, there is a free sharing of feedback support- we all recognize that we are all stronger when we work together. Many of the new programs and services have been adapted from programs at other NCG co-ops. 

Concern for Community

In many ways, this is the heart of our mission. The Co-op grew out of concern about access to healthy and local foods on island, and we continue to work to invest in developing a more resilient Island community. We purchase more from San Juan County farmers than any other business in the islands, and are seeking to grow the local market further by helping lead the effort to develop a San Juan County Food Hub. We have also participated as a partner organization for the annual San Juan Islands Agricultural Summit for the past three years. 

In the store, we have a variety of community programs and initiatives. We fund and distribute a farmer grant program called the Sustainable FARM (Food, Agriculture, Relationships, & Markets) Fund. This is funded by putting aside 1¢ for every $2 spent in our produce department. In two years, we have distributed $5,000 to fund six different farmer projects on Orcas Island. There is also the monthly 3% Thursday Community Shopping Day. On the third Thursday of each month, we donate 3% of gross sales to a pre-selected community organization. Last year we contributed over $2,700 to our partner organizations- a number we are hoping to knock out of the water this year! Join us April 20 to support The Exchange!

Every day, when you bring your own grocery bags, our cashiers will give you a wooden nickel. Pick from one of our three funds and we will donate 5¢ for each wood coin. This year our chosen organizations are Orcas Community Participatory Agriculture, the Co-op’s FARM Fund, and the monthly rotating 3% Thursday organization. Last year we saved over 6,400 paper bags. Little choices can add up to big change!

We hope that this has shown you how our Co-op is so much more than our favorite grocery store. We will continue to grow and thrive only through the active participation of our Owners and the island community. We want to hear from you and help you engage in your cooperative in the way you find most fulfilling. Our Board of Directors and Co-op Employees are here to represent the Member-Owner interests. Please contact us if you are interested in learning more about the ways you can get involved!

 


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