Seward Co-op’s Friendship Store and “Community Benefits”

!cid_827EBD1B-811E-4518-8094-A6B147E5D3AA@BelkinBY DEBRA KEEFER RAMAGE

As a longtime member of Seward Co-op, I have been eagerly awaiting the new Friendship Store, which is right down the street. And when I first heard about this Community Benefits Agreement that is being discussed, a vehicle whereby Seward Co-op agrees to commit to certain benefits for the communities most affected by their expansion store, I thought, yeah, that sounds like a good thing. And when I heard that Seward Co-op would be presenting a progress report at the Bryant Neighborhood Organization meeting on Saturday, April 25, I decided to attend as an observer and learn more about it. Unfortunately, I came from that meeting thoroughly confused. So before writing this report, I had to do some digging and find out what was lurking in the background.
CBAs are a relatively new thing, and so quite trendy. But before now, they have been between large, private developers getting public money (tax increments or the like) on the one hand and coalitions of communities, often including local government, on the other hand. Knowing this, the idea of seeking to impose a CBA on Seward Co-op runs into some rather obvious problems. Seward is not private, not a developer, and not receiving any public money. The group calling for a CBA, which is called “At the Roots,” has no local government support, is not a coalition (has, as far as I can see, no organizational standing at all), and is not representative of the majority of the communities it claims to speak for. To make its case even more tenuous than it already is, it has made up for its lack of cohesive organization by engaging in bizarre “PR” tactics, such as producing a series of YouTube videos with repulsive, racially-charged libels against Seward Co-op staff members. If you think my characterization of these videos is over the top, I will just share that LaDonna Redmond, a respected food justice activist and now outreach director for the co-op, was called a two-word racial epithet that rhymes with “louse” and “chigger.” (No, really. Yeah, I know, it’s the 21st century, but no, really.)
Despite what the co-op admits is a mixed result in this process so far, they are still participating with two neighborhood organizations, Bryant’s BNO and Central’s CANDO, in a task force to work out what they are calling a Mutual Benefits Agreement. Sean Doyle, the general manager, said that they felt that the term Community Benefits Agreement had been made “toxic” by the recent history. This is true, but as pointed out above, the parties to any agreement they will eventually end up with are not in the same relationship as intended in a CBA anyway. I had a look at the proposed CBA, which Doyle himself was only able to see about a week ago. It’s obvious that the people who wrote this strange document were using a boilerplate meant for the aforementioned big developers getting tax money, and lack all basic understanding of how co-ops are structured and what they can and cannot do. The things they are demanding, under penalty of being “fined” $1,000 a day for “non-compliance,” include goals of 50% people of color in hiring, providing eight hours a month of meeting space for mass community meetings, incredibly large training targets—remember this a grocery store we’re talking about here. Apart from the fact that the very thing that makes the co-op so desirable for the community—its one-member, one-vote principle of owner-control, with ownership costing $75 for life or less if you’re poor—would have to be subverted for them to “comply” with these demands.
Friendship Store Manager Raynardo Williams Even ahead of having an agreement to guide their goals, Seward Co-op has been very proactive in meeting the community wishes that they have heard expressed in over 100 public meetings since the fall of 2013.  They increased their needs-based discount from 5% to 10%, implemented a needs-based membership program that allows full membership for only $15 if qualified, increased staff percentage of people of color by several percentage points, worked with community-based employment groups to fulfill hiring targets of specific communities, and put a lot of energy into the Nourish program that teaches member-consumers how to maximize their food spend. In order to get the re-zoning needed to start building, the co-op got 100% of residents within 100 yards of the store to sign a petition. And there is a very large percentage of their current members who reside within 1.5 miles of the new store.
The management of the co-op, which is answerable to the board of directors, which is in turn elected by all the more than 13,000 members, is open to still more input from the community in how they can better serve their needs for healthful, affordable food. Whether or not peace can be made on paper with even the naysayers in the community, the Friendship Store is coming, and what will really prove its success is when people in the community are able to vote with their dollars, as well as their member votes if they wish.

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