PAUL GLOVER ESSAYS: community control of food, fuel, housing, health care, planning, education, finance.
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GreenStar's Green Future
Keeping Food Co-ops Cooperative

by Paul Glover

Health food products are more than food that's healthy for one's own body.

Health foods are those that are nontoxic to everyone's environment. Products whose cultivation, harvest, processing and transport contaminate our planet are not health food.

GreenStar Cooperative Market was founded as the Ithaca Real Food Co-op in 1971 upon that broader mission-- to remind Ithacans that shopping is voting and that consumer choices affect the health of our water and air.

During recent years GreenStar has served the growing local market for premium natural food among Ithaca's holistic middle class. However, as this upscale market has expanded nationwide, larger corporations have purchased natural food labels to compete with pioneer regional producers. These corporations generally have least commitment to environmental and labor values.

Meanwhile, to serve Ithaca's large market, GreenStar has expanded its physical plant overhead such that we're pressured to sell more and more of these high markup imports. Therefore products are sold today at GreenStar which are produced by sweatshop and prison labor, profiting companies based on nuclear weapons and forest destruction, the manufacture and disposal of whose packaging causes cancer.

GreenStar still shines at stimulating new local business creation, by showcasing local farms and food processors, local musicians and artisans. But store expansion has also squeezed out several local food providers who could not meet new stocking standards. Conventional expansion has entailed centralization of management. And it has required "labor-saving" technology that has reduced certain categories of member participation.

At every stage of our co-op's expansion, decisions have been made (our first storefront, paid staff, larger store, consultants, staff hierarchy, POS, etc.) which seemed reasonable and necessary at the time. These decisions cumulatively have brought us to our largest decision, as GreenStar considers doubling its current size.

GreenStar members can now decide to expand simply by selling ever-greater volumes and varieties of premium packaged imported 'natural' food to higher income households, regardless of environmental and labor damage, and thereby support a larger staff at higher wages.

By contrast, GreenStar can design its expansion to prove that whole foods produced ecologically-- particularly within our region-- can be retailed competitively, in order to serve lower-income residents as well. At the same time, we can expand deliberately to reduce dependence on environmentally-damaging imports and their harsh labor practices.

Some would say that market pressures will not currently permit lower costs and lower prices. But GreenStar can break this dilemma. Rather than becoming a larger agent for remote corporations, the GreenStar community can prosper by establishing a constellation of local import-replacing (locally-based) enterprises. Examples of imports ripe for replacement include pasta, chips & salsa, soy drinks, dried fruit, baby food, vegetarian pet food, biodegradable laundry/dish soap. The list is as long as our aisles.

GreenStar would bootstrap new such enterprises (and related suppliers) by establishing a prioritized revolving loan fund, then inviting proposals. Loan recipients would be held to quality and production standards, helped to meet them, and required to disclose sources of ingredients and supplies. Credit union loans might also be secured by guaranteeing start-up shelf space.

GreenStar's role could well include sponsoring related business incubators, with approved kitchens. The IthaCannery could even stimulate urban agricultural sources for food products.

Most ambitiously, and eventually most necessary, would be construction of GreenStar's GreenHouse, for nonchemically growing hydroponic winter produce. This provides preventive medicine, considering the accelerating loss of California's Central Valley farms to suburbanization and salination.

These new community enterprises would enjoy local economies of scale through bulk packaging and reduced transport. And through GreenStar's aggressive marketing of loyalty to the environmental and labor values inherent in our local brands. Marketing the Ithaca Catalog beyond our region would gain GreenStar export revenue, and inspire other communities to do likewise. We can expand where Wegman's can't follow, and recapture market.

To accomplish the above, we'll need to retool our goals, budget and space allocation. Fundamental efficiencies begin with store energy use. During the next two years, NYSEG's current rate contract with the PSC expires, and electric rates can be expected to rise as in California. Any expansion should budget fuel efficiency foremost.

And while raising wages to livable levels is essential, we can restrain food prices by also capping highest GreenStar wages, fixing the ratio between highest and lowest pay. Wages can instead be raised via mutual aid systems (like food, housing, health, barter, finance).

Higher wages are good when they permit us to meet basic needs and protect our old age. Higher wages are excessive when they permit us randomly to consume fossil fuels and exploit Third World labor.

Some will take exception to my heresies for limiting store retail space, and capping employee salary. But these restraints are fundamental to rebuilding community and nature, where our destinies lay.

There's another heresy. Dedicating resources to enterprise diversification will restrain product line expansion. One hears repeatedly that 'GreenStar simply sells its members what they ask for.' Some members are dedicated singularly to that part of co-op democracy. But our grassroots mission is more significant than feeding cravings. We were founded to educate one another about smart shopping-- making it fun and easier to live better ecologically, while repairing the planet.

What, finally, is the effect of a larger store on co-op democracy? GreenStar was especially founded to prove that citizens can cooperate to control economies, rather than be tools of governmental and corporate bureaucracies. Every institution finds that greater size more readily creates distance between member-owners and management. Our challenge will be to keep direct democracy fresh.

For example, when there are referenda challenges to the ethics of a certain product, GreenStar should welcome such elections proudly, as exemplary of our democratic corporate style.

As well, the preference by some Council members for "Policy Governance" (hands-off management and abolishing member committees) should be a road not taken.

At this scale of our development, GreenStar has achieved the real capacity to become an even more powerful engine of democratic community self reliance. Our original purposes are more relevant than ever before, and more essential.

Conventional expansion, tending towards becoming a New Age Wegman's, would leave us behind. Expanding our co-op's direct democratic controls, its priorities for community-reinvestment, its environmental and social discernment, will keep us ahead of the sharpest curves that await civilization and its markets.

Glover joined the Ithaca Real Food Co-op in 1972. paul5glover@yahoo.com

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