A Visit to Fellow Co-ops in the Midwest

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By Mariah Rose Dahl,

Marketing Assistant

growing-power-coopI recently had the opportunity to visit the Midwest and attend a co-op marketing conference in Milwaukee, WI that included folks from over 80 different co-ops from around the country. It was so powerful to hear stories from such a wide range of co-ops with different sizes, member bases, and socio-economic locations. I found it inspiring to be connected to so many people

who are dealing with the issue of food security. When I left the conference, I was filled with a larger pride for our Co-op and local food community in Ithaca. Building and sustaining these links between the food system and cooperative movement is what will keep the movement alive and strong.

My only prior exposure to the Midwest was Garrison Keillor, and I had the idea that they were known for cheese and light beer. The day of my arrival, I found the Milwaukee Public Market, 18 independent shops bursting with high-quality artisan goods, ethnic products, and freshly prepared foods. I chose a fried veggie pita sandwich from a deli called Aladdin, voted best Middle Eastern cuisine in the city. I left the market and wandered to the edge of Lake Michigan. It was cold and the lake was covered in a deep fog.

That night there was an intense storm that left flooding in the streets. The flashes of lighting and the purple and orange lights illuminating the building next door made for an epic light show. It was my first time experiencing flooding in a large city, surrounded by concrete and skyscrapers. I fell asleep thinking about climate change and our ability as humans to respond to natural disasters in densely populated cities.

The next morning I rented a bicycle from a solar powered bike-rental station, part of a program called Midwest Bike Share. The bike station is a test project for a large initiative throughout the city. I biked along the edge of the lake toward the center of the city. Downtown Milwaukee has some large bridges under construction, and the scale of these pathways mesmerized me.

The conference lasted three days and was inspiring as well as motivating. Deep conversations took place about our food crisis and the major role of co-ops in creating community and better access to wholesome food. One of the speakers, Trudy Bourgeois, is the founder of Work Force for Excellence. She was powerful and inspiring. She encouraged us to work harder to be inclusive in the workplace and to build bridges in our communities to make our co-ops stronger. She feels that the key to creating inclusion, diversity, and buy-in from members and shoppers is to create that same dynamic within staff.

I also learned that, though the majority of co-op members are baby boomers, there is a push to connect my generation, the millennials, with the core values of the cooperative movement. Cristin Burns, from New Leaf Co-op, and Alison Germain, from Community Food Co-op, shared their experiences of keeping their co-ops standing strong and resilient in the face of large corporate competition moving into their communities. While all the presenters were terrific, I was most moved by my personal conversations with folks from other co-ops, hearing their stories and learning about their programs.

After the conference I decided to stay an extra couple of days and immerse myself in the Midwest. I drove 40 minutes out of town to the rural community of Newburg to stay on the only hostel/CSA farm in the US, Wellspring. I met Maryanne, who shook my hand then gave me a big hug and told me, "We hug around here." I felt an instant connection to her and the farm. Wellspring is an educational retreat, organic farm/CSA, and hostel. Maryanne started the farm in the 1980s, after running a community garden with a focus on education in the city of Milwaukee. The 38-acre farm raises chickens and a variety of organic vegetables. It was hard to adjust to the quiet after a busy three days of networking and lectures in the city, and I found myself missing my family, friends, and co-op — but I enjoyed my time harvesting some stinging nettles for tea, running in the country, and reading from Maryanne's book about the 30-year history of Wellspring.

On my last day I drove into Milwaukee to visit Growing Power (www.growingpower.org), an urban farm created by former collegiate and professional basketball player Will Allen. The farm is very active, with large-scale production of sprouts and micro-greens, a variety of goats and chickens, a number of hoop houses, and an intense aquaponics system, which raises tilapia, perch, and vegetables. They have plans for a five-story farmhouse on the plot of land.

A fellow hostel visitor had mentioned that there was an enclave of co-ops in the city called Riverwest. I decided to visit, and what I found was amazing! It was a very diverse neighborhood with kids playing on the streets and active businesses. The natural foods co-op was my first stop; it was small and neat and had a vegetarian café adjoining. I also found a cooperatively owned bookstore, which had a variety of activist books and a large children's section. At this point I was parched and a little tired. The thought of a cold beer and some conversation about this cooperative network made my mouth water. This is exactly what I found at the Riverwest Public House, a cooperatively owned public house. It looks like your average bar, but it's a little different. The stage hosts regular talent, and the beer selection is diverse. I chose a pint of Schlitz, a light and local lager. I felt welcome at once and fell into an intense and invigorating conversation with a regular patron who also happened to be on the board of the Public House and the food co-op. He told me that all of the co-ops were a part of a larger collective called the Riverwest Cooperative Alliance (www.rca.coop), which includes, in addition to the market, bookstore, and public house, a housing co-op, building company, and investment co-op.

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