Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Growing Process at the Olympia Food Co-op

Above: The Eastside Store on Pacific Avenue.
By Janine Unsoeld

While most local elections were settled November 5, one election continues until November 15.

The Olympia Food Co-op board has four openings and a slate of 12 candidates, most of whom showed up to mingle with members at the Co-op’s general membership meeting on October 27 at the Olympia Ballroom.

At the meeting, staff gave a financial update, a description of its upcoming strategic goals, news about the Westside and the Eastside stores, and heard from most board candidates.  

Two candidates, Kim Chaplin and Casey Kilduff, dropped their candidacies after the Co-op newsletter was printed. Alex and Audrey Daye did not attend the annual meeting.

In addition to board elections, members may vote on several proposed changes to the Co-op bylaws.

In light of current economic conditions and a pressing plethora of natural and organic shopping venue choices now available in the South Sound region, Co-op annual meeting members struggled with key issues in small groups and debated serious questions: Who are we really? Do we really own the Co-op? Do new members know what a Co-op is? What does the Co-op uniquely have to offer its members? How do we increase revenue?
Above: Writings on butcher paper at the Co-op annual meeting captured many thoughts.
The Co-op, which is actually structured as a non-profit, is also researching possible reincorporation issues. Discussion about the definition and activities of an actual cooperative created significant discussion.

Theresa Young, an organizational development specialist with the Northwest Cooperative Development Center addressed the members, giving a report on the issue, and said that 60% of all food co-ops function exactly like the Olympia Food Co-op. Co-op staff and board members say they are not advocating for any change or preference, but are gathering information on the topic.

Kim Chaplin, who is no longer a board candidate, said that she appreciates that the Co-op provides a service for low income people. If the Co-op moved to a patronage system, rewarding its members based on the amount they spend, it could create a two-class hierarchy. And, she added, she would not be excited about her purchases being “tracked” by the Co-op.

The Co-op has 22,000 members. A member is defined as one whose dues or low-income membership and mailing address is up to date. A regular lifetime membership card is $29. About 150 volunteers, all of whom perform vital functions, such as cashiering and stocking of product, receive a significant discount on their food purchases for their efforts.

One volunteer cashier lamented the difficulties in welcoming and signing up new members while others wait in line to be served.

“What are the benefits of being a Co-op member beyond lower prices? The cashier line is not the place to sign up new members – we’re doing them a disservice – they don’t know what they’re signing up for and they don’t care.”

Members pay the price shown on products; non-members pay 10% more on their purchases. The Co-op holds a series of food related classes and the board took a stand in support of I-522 which would have labeled genetically modified foods.
Above: The Westside Store on Rogers Street. Be sure go to the Free Store, adjacent when it’s open. Yes, it’s really free. Take what you need and help out by bringing your free books, clothes, working kitchen items, and knickknacks when it is open to accept your gifts.
Size Might Matter

Although staff and many members were exploring options for a downtown store, it is unusual for a small city like Olympia to have two economically thriving food co-ops. Some large cities, like Denver, don’t even have one food co-op.

The original Westside store on Rogers St. is about 5,000 square feet, and the Eastside store on Pacific Avenue next to the Ford All-Star dealership is about 7,500 square feet. Each store has its own vibe, quirks, products, and loyal customers.

In September, at the Westside store, the produce department alone reported sales of $79,736; the Eastside store reported $145,065.

Asked later what type of products produces the most income for the Co-op, Co-op bookkeeper Corey Mayer responded that the year-to-date income by category, in decreasing order for the two stores combined are:  $3,053,000 - Packaged Grocery; $2,275,000 – Produce; $1,693,000 – Bulk; $1,399,000 - Chill (refrigerated/dairy); $805,000 - Health and Body products (supplements and body care), followed by, in decreasing order, meat, taxable groceries, such as cleansers, paper products, mercantile and garden supplies; frozen foods, cheese and deli products.
Above: Jim Cubbage shops at the Eastside Co-op last Sunday.
Jayne Rossman, outreach and expansion staff representative to the board, explained at the annual meeting that while their cash flow is improving, the Co-op’s health plan for staff is currently overspent by about $150,000 and they have had to cut labor and expenses to offset this. Staff budgeted $600,000 for medical for the year total and expect to hit $750,000. While this “donut hole” gap does not happen often, she said staff are looking into changing their medical plan. The Co-op offers medical insurance to all staff who work more than 30 hours a week.

She also said a weekly cash analysis, instead of a monthly one, will keep track of all cash in and all money spent. Co-op staff will be setting up benchmarks for when they can start spending money again for purchases and future expansion efforts.

For now, long desired projects, such as a garden center for the Eastside store, are on hold. A freshly brewed coffee station has long been requested for the Westside store, and is also on hold. New to the Westside store, however, is an eight foot grab-and-go deli freezer.
Above: Mural at the Denver Airport by Leo Tanguma, Leticia Tanguma, Cheryl Detwiler, John Oshsner and Bill Meredith, created in October 2005.
The Boycott of Israeli Products

While the Olympia Food Co-op has many issues on its plate, one issue in particular continues to divide its members: the three year old boycott of Israeli products.

Staff gave annual meeting attendees a very brief update on the lawsuit relating to the boycott, currently on appeal to the state Supreme Court, only when prompted by the public comments of board candidate Nancy Koppelman.

In her comments, Koppelman responded directly to an article written by Phan Nguyen in the October issue of Works in Progress:

“You may have read Phan Nguyen’s Works in Progress article calling my candidacy “peculiar….” I hope to convince you that, even if you disagree with my views, my candidacy honors the best of what the Co-op stands for. Although Nguyen belittles “process,” processes associated with self-rule are fundamental to justice worthy of the name....."

Koppelman continued, “The Co-op board compromised its mission when it made a deeply controversial decision….To get back on track, the Co-op should embrace criticisms. That’s what democracies do….Thoughtful engagement with controversy can enable us to see beyond one of democracy’s lowest standards: the passions of the moment, no matter how compelling they are. In such a moment, the Board made the Co-op join the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement. Like all of you, I am free to question that decision. Until we revisit it together, genuine self-governance will elude the Co-op.

“The Board continued to set aside its duty to the full membership in its response to the lawsuit….Empathetic Co-op members on all sides know that the boycott hurt our community. I want to help address the open wounds. For example, it’s worth exploring a “fair trade” approach, favored by many other businesses, as a better way to enact an inclusive commitment to social justice. The Board should lead the main responsibility….”

Disruptive catcalls during Koppelman’s speech from a few audience members prompted staff to ask for respect to all candidates. Koppelman did not mention or explain her position on the boycott in her candidate statement published by the Olympia Food Co-op newsletter.

The issue has indeed dogged the Co-op members, board, and staff.

Recently, 20 boycott supporters attended a Co-op board meeting and voiced their support for the Co-op’s position on the Israeli boycott.

In the July Co-op’s board meeting minutes, JT Scott addressed the Board as a member since the 80s, an active volunteer and a former board member. Saying he has seen “a lot of hurt in the community and within himself,” his feelings about the Co-op have changed and he doesn’t feel comfortable in the store anymore. By his reading of the bylaws the boycott policy is to be decided by staff consensus. He is less concerned about the board making the decision, but how it affected the community and how the community feels about the Co-op. He said there has been no attempt at reconciliation in three years.

The board noted that a letter to the editor was published in The Olympian and Works in Progress about the Co-op and the lawsuit ,which prompted a lot of conversation by the board on the possibility of some sort of community dialogue/reconciliation process.

Questions brought up from this discussion included: How hindered are we by the lawsuit that is still active? What can/can’t we do? Can we have a peace & reconciliation committee to work on this? What does the word “reconciliation” mean? How do we “maintain free-flowing communication” and “resolve organizational conflicts” in this situation?

Apparently, while there is a wide variety of feelings among board members on the specifics of this topic and a general feeling about wanting to move forward, they are uncertain how to do so, due to the lawsuit.

Board candidate Kitty Koppelman, sister of Nancy Koppelman, is a 26 year staff member of the Co-op. When asked by this reporter at the annual meeting about her position on the boycott, she responded that she did not have an opinion.

“I don’t know. I want to see change happen, voices to be heard, a more inclusive engagement and that doesn’t mean changing the decision that was made, but maybe it does. Current relations are strained. I want to bring a willingness to improve relations.”

Kitty Koppelman said that she would remain a staff member if elected to the board, and that there is nothing in the bylaws that says this can’t happen.

Olympia Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Organization Endorsements

Prior to the annual meeting, the Olympia Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions organization sent out an email:

“We were all heartened when Superior Court Judge McPhee sided with the defendants in the lawsuit filed against Co-op board members and staff in February 2012, hoping that the costly drama of court proceedings would finally be put to rest. However, after a failed effort by the plaintiffs to make the Co-op pay for the fines imposed by state statutes which protect free speech then appealed their suit to the Washington State Supreme Court. The Supreme Court kicked the case back down to an Appeals court where it languishes.

“In fact, as another Co-op board election opens, supporters of the lawsuit are once again working to make the election a battleground. Nancy Koppelman, a vocal supporter of the lawsuit whose testimony was actually used in court proceedings, is one of this year’s board candidates….

“Now is a very important time to ensure that we not only protect the Olympia Food Co-op from people who are antagonistic toward it, but that we help elect board members who will carry on the Co-op’s mission and continue to make the Co-op thrive for the community.”

The BDS organization says it endorsed four candidates, Mohamed El Sokkary, Sally Brownfield, Michael Snow and Josh Simpson, based on their long-term commitment to the community; their unique assets that strengthen the Co-op’s diversity; knowledge of the implications of the lawsuit against the Co-op; and possession of a range of commitments to food and social justice.

After the annual meeting, Rossman was asked by this reporter if there was any immediate or lingering economic impact, gain or loss due to the Co-op boycott of Israeli products on overall revenue.

Rossman responded, “Little to none….None of the nine products we took off the shelves due to the boycott were high sellers. Membership and sales have continued to grow from the time of the boycott’s enactment. However, given how much else we do and change in the stores, it’s difficult to absolutely determine whether the bump in sales was caused by the boycott itself, rather than other factors.”

Alcohol Sales at the Co-op

Although it is not a question on the ballot, the sale of alcohol at the Co-op is another issue long debated. All candidates were contacted by this reporter to respond to the question of their position on the issue of alcohol sales at the Co-op. Four responded – and their responses are indicative of the diversity of opinions expressed by members, staff, and board members.

“I would support the sale of locally-produced - at least not having to be transported very far - beer and wine only. I understand there are some wineries developing in Washington State, and I know there are some micro-breweries.  I think it would be fine to support them, particularly if they are also working to create products that are organic, and using sustainable agricultural practices, said Desdra Dawning.

“If given good enough reasons that I can’t think of I may change my mind, but in general I would not support selling alcohol because I think the shelf space can be better used by other products,” said Sally Brownfield.

"Regarding alcohol at the Co-op, this question, like many others, is an opportunity for the co-op leadership (staff and board) to create a forum for the membership to consider the co-ops values together.  There are compelling cases to be made in both directions for and against selling alcoholic beverages.  The cases must be made publicly in order for a decision, one way or another, to become part of the Co-op's culture," said Nancy Koppelman.

“I would have to say no, I do not think having alcohol available in the Co-op would be a good idea. I have noticed that some of our volunteers are under age. How would that affect them? Would that mean you would have to be 21 or older to volunteer? Or would we have a “special” place that we housed the liquor? If so, where? We are short on space as it is….Perhaps we can refer our customers to some local brewers or local wine places. We can still help support local business but also acknowledge the fact that it isn’t something we offer but do offer a solution," said Ally Koeber.

How To Vote

The process and method of voting is old school.

A ballot and voting envelope is included in the Olympia Food Co-op's latest printed newsletter members received in the mail. Ballots and newsletters are also available in each store. First, make sure your membership is current and that your address is up-to-date in the Co-op's database. Ask a cashier for a form to update your address if needed.

To vote, write your name and address on one of the envelopes provided and vote for only four candidates. If you check more, your ballot will not be valid. Put the ballot in the envelope, seal the envelope and drop it in the ballot box in one of the stores.

“Ballots are verified by name and membership in a two-part process that preserves anonymity….We separate and keep any envelopes with a problem (can’t find the member in the database, dues not up-to-date, no information on envelope) and keep them separately. We try our best to resolve any uncertainties and make sure that every vote that can be counted, is counted. Just the ballots, then, are passed on to the people counting the votes, so the people counting don’t know whose vote it is,” explained Rossman.

Rossman says, “I sincerely hope that, at some point in the next few years, we will move to online voting.” She says if you have already voted, and you didn’t follow the directions exactly, your vote will not be counted, and you may vote again the correct way.

It is also possible to mail in your ballot. Make sure your full name and address show on the return address. Mail to: Olympia Food Co-op, 3111 Pacific Ave SE, Olympia WA 98501.

To read the history of the Co-op, official statements of all Olympia Food Co-op candidates, and proposed by-law changes, go to

To read the article by Phan Nguyen in the October issue of Works in Progress, go to:

Full Disclosure: Janine Unsoeld became a Co-op member in 1988. As a vendor since 2005, she currently sells her photography greeting cards at the Eastside Co-op. She did not vote correctly at the annual meeting, and will vote again, the correct way.
Above: The beloved #4000 bin at each store means whatever is in there is only 50 cents a pound. It might be something you’d want to eat or make into a meal right away. What a deal. Yep, I got one of these bunches of lettuce, but passed on the eggplant. When you take your haul to the cashier, tell them you got it from the #4000 bin, and they’ll be just as excited as you are.