Real Food Real Values

By Joe Romano,
Marketing Manager

The future will be determined in part by happenings that it is impossible to foresee; it will also be influenced by trends that are now existent and observable … Those who are rooted in the depths that are eternal and unchangeable and who rely on unshakeable principles, face change full of courage, courage based on faith.

–Emily G. Balch (1867-1961) American economist and sociologist. 1946 winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Genesis and the New Testament all represent change as a central life value.  Ancient Nordic myth, Japanese, African and Shamanic traditions and even cave paintings dating from as far back the Upper Paleolithic Era depict life as centering on change and transformation. Yet we struggle with it still.

This is natural. While we need to constantly transform, there are equal and counterbalancing forces that wish us to remain the same.  Think of an egg about to hatch.  There are forces in the egg that hold it together, that attempt to maintain its form and structure and identity as an egg.  At the same time powerful forces are at work to transform the egg into a chick. Depending on which forces win out, we are either left with an egg, or something that becomes not-an-egg and maybe even a chick, leading to both the chick’s next form and identity and a long cycle of transformations, death and even rebirth. 

It is worth noting that even if counter-evolutionary forces win out and the egg does not transform to a chick, this victory is fleeting because almost immediately, the egg will succumb to change and be eaten or spoil. It will always rejoin the cycle of life, evolution and change.

While change is integral to the human condition, change also seems to challenge and even to stress us.  Perhaps this is why humans are also deeply imbued with strong pattern-recognition skills.  We balance our need to change with a keen ability to see patterns and trends in those changes, hence stabilizing ourselves in the midst of the flow. We can recognize the patterns, predict trends and thereby introduce order.  So even if the cost of food is rising along with gas prices and other costs of living and doing business, we can find a pattern; if we look deeper, we can find a cause and work toward a solution.

At a recent National Cooperative Grocer’s Association meeting, representatives of co-ops from the Eastern and Central states discussed trends that we were experiencing and scenarios we envisioned as cooperatives and as grocers. Cooperatives, we noted, are experiencing growth worldwide: world-wide, co-ops thrive in every sector of the economy and bring in $250 billion dollars a year, rivaling even Wal-Mart.  Together, co-ops may be the same size as the world’s largest conventional chain but there is a difference between these two massive market forces. The difference is in our values.

Large conventional chains can almost always out-operate co-ops. They can keep costs down with low wages and minimal benefits and can operate in ways that cost them less and cost the environment more.  They can pressure suppliers on price and on practices. Co-ops are not able to mass-buy, mass-build, and mass-produce in the way that big boxes can.  Nor do we want to. Our stores are not big boxes that are dropped down into a community and send all the profits out of town.  Our stores are owned by their communities and grow organically from local needs, keeping as much of our money as possible right in our towns.

But with current trends what they are—our nation is at war, prices are rising all around us, the environment and our health is at risk, and workers and families are finding it harder to make ends meet—we cannot rest on our laurels.

Co-ops need to adapt to these trends and scenarios that are playing out in the world of 2008, that much is clear. We can attempt to drive down our operating costs while maintaining livable wages and comprehensive benefits packages for employees.  We can tone up and strengthen our financial practices. We can operate more efficiently and use less energy and initiate fewer costs.  We can become more efficient and more nimble in the offerings we provide—especially in local products, fair-trade, organic, and fresh foods.  If our membership expands, we must be ready to expand with it. And we must get better at telling our story, letting people know who we are and why we are a different kind of business.

And this is why there has been so much change lately in the stores at GreenStar.  We are attempting to operate more efficiently, and to offer more products our members want. We are trying to make the best use of our space as we’ve grown to over 7,000 members, while vigorously pursuing expansion opportunities. We are constantly searching for new local providers and fairly-traded items.  We are looking at our current discount structure and considering patronage refunds. And in the weeks and months to come we will find better ways to let our community know that we sell fresh, nutritious food in as natural a state as possible. We also want to better inform people about the Co-op and how it is different from a store run for private profit.

While our most public offering is food, we are a food store that is based in values, our “unshakeable” cooperative principles.  This is at the core of the story we have to tell, that GreenStar is about real food and real values.

Food is expensive today no matter where you shop. So while trends seem to point to rocky times ahead, our steadfast commitment to our cooperative values will give us the courage to change and adapt as needed.  We can also have the faith that in hard times people return to real values like real food and real principles. Because as Aeschylus himself might have said of GreenStar, “our resolve is not to seem, but to be, the best.”

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