Breakout Sessions by Track

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Track 1: The Foundations of Grocery Greatness

Focus on People: Creating Operational Stability, and Success Through Intentional Cultural Growth

Bruce Phlegar, CEO/General Manager, Roanoke Co+op
Steve Cooke, General, Friendly City Food Co-op

Food co-ops face increasing competition from larger grocery retailers. The pressure on co-op leaders to respond to our current shared challenges can seem overwhelming. We ask ourselves: How do we redefine ourselves and lead our co-ops into the future? What are our primary advantages? What can we do that our competition is unwilling or unable to do?

At the same time, the larger grocery chains are facing competition from each other. Some fight to preserve or increase their share of the market, while others position their organizations for a merger or acquisition. Corporate ownership dictates that they control expenses to prioritize profit and work to create a positive perception. To maximize profit, they keep staff members’ wages and benefits low while promoting their commitment to fresh produce from far away and their ever-lower prices. They proclaim their customer-first initiatives that promise a better shopping experience, while the needs of their staff and customers are ignored. As the larger grocery retailers treat staff as commodities and their customers as an annoying means to an end, they wonder why their latest 5-point plan is not bringing the return it promised. From the customer’s perspective, when visiting those big box stores, we do not experience great customer service, value, fresh produce, or a pleasant shopping experience. What are the big-box retailers missing? Why is their execution so far removed from what they planned? Why are we as consumers left wanting, and wanting what?

Therein lies our co-ops’ opportunity. Larger grocers don’t recognize the importance of genuine human connection, or they can’t operationalize and replicate it throughout their system. Consider that culture grows by and for the will of the group. Positive culture change only occurs when the success of the individual and the group is equally supported by their leaders. To create intentional culture change, we focus first on the people in our care, and we provide a work environment that supports a successful work-life balance. Those staff members will, in turn, treat our member-owners, customers, vendors, and each other in positive ways that move our co-op’s goals forward and contribute to an unforgettable, positive feeling for all involved. The result is a higher level of operational efficiency, staff retention, community connection, and job satisfaction.

In this session, Steve Cooke and Bruce Phlegar will share what they have learned about cultivating and maintaining a culture of cooperation, from which success grows. Focus on People will describe a path that begins with an intentional vision that focuses on operational structure and culture-enriching programs and practices, all driven by strong operational performance and a leadership mindset that embraces change.

Learning outcomes:

  • Participants will have the opportunity to redefine their leadership priorities.
  • Attendees gain insight from relatable accounts of failures, successes, and lessons learned along the road toward a more congruent culture.
  • Participants will learn these key elements of conscious cultural growth.
    • organizational intent and structure
    • culture affirming programs and practices
    • the leadership mindset that supports continuous organizational improvement

Who should attend: General Managers or Department Managers, Administrative Department Staff -marketing, human resources, finance, IT, etc

Who Are We, Anyway?

Michael Walter, Store Operations Manager, Belfast Community Co-op
Gina Ferendo, Store Service Manager, Belfast Community Co-op
Doug Johnson, General Manager, Belfast Community Co-op
Jamie Cermak, Marketing Manager, Belfast Community Co-op

Food co-ops in urban areas face competition from a number of chain supermarkets nearby and must find ways to adjust and thrive. Meanwhile, there are dozens of food co-ops around the country that are located in small cities or rural areas and are not as affected by what we traditionally consider competition. However, these co-ops still face challenges.

The Belfast Community Co-op has 5,180 owners in a town of 7,000 residents and in a county with 40,000, of whom nearly 20% reside near or below the poverty line. There are only a handful of other medium- or large-sized grocery stores. Lacking traditional competition, the Co-op still exists in some people’s minds as an off-limits, expensive, and elitist store. After all, they say, the big chain grocery store sells most of the same items! What can rural or small-town co-ops do to change this perception?

In this session, panelists will discuss how the Belfast Community Co-op is able to keep its vision intact while making strategic gains in reaching out to make sure All Are Welcome in our store. Furthermore, the discussion will center on why it may be time that co-ops stop focusing on food as their point of differentiation and start refocusing on other things we do well: worker treatment, tangible ways we can show concern for the community, how the cooperative business model is the secret to reaching everyone, and how it may keep our communities economically healthy going forward.

In 2023, Belfast Community Co-op shoppers raised a total of $70,000 through their monthly Common Cents round-up program. At the beginning of 2023, we became the first WIC participant among co-ops in Maine. The co-op pays the MIT livable wage to over 90% of its workers. We are undergoing a significant renovation project scheduled to open in June, one that will see our beloved cafe return after a four-year hiatus due to COVID and construction. Our Shop For Me program is expanding from a curbside pickup born from the pandemic to what we see as a way to get food to even more people. With these ambitious programs and tangible steps towards enriching the community, the Belfast Community Co-op has a lot to share with our fellow cooperators on making a real difference in our communities.

Learning outcomes:

  • Programs to enhance your co-op’s presence in the community
  • Changing the minds of naysayers
  • Examining what “Everyone Welcome” actually means

Who should attend: Board of Directors, General Managers or Department Managers, Rural stores

Charting the Course to a Dream: The Journey to Prepared Foods Excellence

Heather Burt, General Manager, Rising Tide Co-op
Mike Runco, Store and Staff Development Manager, Rising Tide Co-op
Michelle O’Connor, Principal, Moxie Consulting and Associate, Thought For Food Consulting

It started with a dream. We wanted to build a prepared foods department like we’ve seen so many other co-ops achieve. A shiny new kitchen staffed with smiling faces serving organic food to satisfied co-op customers. We knew the journey to realize this dream wouldn’t be easy but it’s proving to be longer and more complicated than we’d ever imagined. It has also delivered us a bounty of valuable lessons and successes along the way.

With changing leadership and unexpected obstacles, our team at times felt lost at sea. We came to realize that breaking the project into many smaller, more achievable goals was going to be necessary. We learned the value of calling in professionals to guide us through uncharted territory and watched our team learn and grow into roles that, prior to this, were beyond their skill sets. Perhaps the biggest lesson we’ve learned is that this journey is never-ending; there is no finish line for prepared foods, and there is no point where you just get to steer the ship. The world is always changing, and so we must continue to learn and grow in service to our community. We’ve discovered that having strong foundational systems has been critical to remaining stable and able to pivot and course-correct as we continue working together to build the prepared foods department. We’ve come to appreciate and value each step of the journey as we look back and see how far we’ve come.

Join Heather Burt, Mike Runco, and Michelle O’Connor as they share the inspiring story of how a midsized co-op in coastal Maine persevered, got creative, and continues to this day to work together to create our dream. We will share our ongoing journey that relied on cooperation, determination, and strategic resource utilization to create a beautiful kitchen that serves our community and provides employment to a population as wild and beautiful as Maine itself. This case study illustrates how the project served as a unifying force, put our commitments to the test, and ultimately reflected the contributions of all those involved. It reminds us that ambitious dreams can be achieved with the right mindset and approach, and that tangible growth and success can be realized sooner than you may think and often far sooner than the completion of any given project.

Learning outcomes:

  • Ideas and inspiration to take a big dream and break it into many parts to reach your goal while simultaneously being keenly aware and realistic about your starting point.
  • The fundamental systems to ensure your prepared foods department is resilient and can endure leadership turnover.
  • Inspiration to those of your currently navigating or planning to navigate a project that feels impossibly large, ever changing and never ending.

Who should attend: General Managers or Department Managers, grocery, deli, prepared foods staff.

Creating Stronger Systems Around Customer Feedback

Cassidy Limberg, Assistant Store Operations Manager, BriarPatch Food Co-op
Rebecca Torpie, Director of Marketing, BriarPatch Food Co-op

What happens when we build warmth through great rapport and feedback and competence through solving problems effectively? The research shows we build customer loyalty. And loyalty builds repeat sales, more co-op ownership, and a stronger, more resilient business. Customer service is an integral part of your store’s brand. The way your customers experience your co-op is connected to how they judge your brand and whether they act as ambassadors for it (or not). Ultimately, this requires everyone in the organization to bear responsibility for the health of the brand.

When BriarPatch was transitioning to a multistore operation, we took the opportunity to evaluate and retool both our internal and external workflows and systems. Processes that may have worked for a single-store operation may no longer be best practice for a second store. Like a lot of co-ops, BriarPatch prides itself on its stellar customer service; however, internally, we lacked the controls that allowed us to make substantive changes based on customer feedback in a truly systematized way.

In order to start utilizing this critically important customer data, on the Ops side, the Co-op implemented NCG’s CX-CMS program—randomly generated customer surveys on receipts. On the marketing side, the co-op implemented a digital help desk to manage its comment system. In this presentation, we’ll tell participants about the journey from comment cards with little to no data collection to an integrated system of tracked data reporting, from how we moved away from legacy practices to onboarding staff to new workflows to harvesting data and its uses.

There are many areas that may not be seen as points of “traditional” customer service, yet any point of contact, especially one that serves as a feedback loop, should be treated as an extension of your brand positioning. We’ll review some of these other critical touchpoints and some simple opportunities to build rapport and elevate a shopping trip to a great service experience.

Learning outcomes:

  • Ways to build your co-op’s brand with the shopping community through establishing rapport and creative feedback loops
  • Tools that create efficiencies and generate data for making impactful operational changes for a better customer experience
  • How to increase whole staff ‘ownership’ of the overall customer experience through buy-in and building appropriate systems for creating pragmatic decision-making

Who should attend: General Managers or Department Managers, Administrative Department Staff -marketing, human resources, finance, IT, etc.

Stay Afloat By Cultivating Price Image And Curating To Compete

James Morrell, Consultant, Columinate
Jeanie Wells, Consultant, Columinate

Staying relevant in the choppy waters of the competitive retail landscape has never been more difficult, but it is also crucial. As large chains have flourished in the past few years, many co-ops have struggled to maintain strong growth and active engagement, even though our mission, values, and stories are much more compelling than our competitors! But we can still compete by skillfully combining a compelling differentiation strategy with our pricing approach to create the intentional image we need to grow our impact.

How our organizations are perceived influences our ability to connect, engage, and meet the needs of the communities we serve. How can we balance our need to have an effective pricing strategy with the goal of highlighting the products and services at the heart of our mission? By identifying our own priorities, naming our core values, and creating an intentional plan, we can meet the high expectations of today’s savvy customer through managing price perceptions, cultivating an authentic image, and delivering value.

In this session, we will examine key trends in the landscape we all face and review the fundamental components of a well-executed pricing strategy. We will identify where each of our individual co-ops’ priorities lie and explore opportunities to use our authentic commitment to local and sustainably sourced products to differentiate us from the competition.

By mastering tactics to compete and integrating key differentiation strategies, we can take charge of our narrative, stay strong, and offer a truly one-of-a-kind experience.

Learning outcomes:

  • Industry trends for growth in the co-op sector versus the conventional retail market across categories
  • The foundations of pricing strategy and using this as an intentional tool to cultivate the store image
  • Strategies to develop opportunities for differentiation through local products, fresh categories, and mission-aligned offerings
  • Participants will leave with a self-identified plan for some next steps.

Who should attend: General Managers or Department Managers, Store Department Staff – grocery, wellness, deli, meat, etc.

Track 2: Being a Great Employer

Developing a Culture of Equity and Inclusion Through the Lens of Access

Mary Lougee, Director of People & Culture, Hanover Co-op

Developing a culture of equity and inclusion through the lens of access involves ensuring that all individuals, regardless of position, background, or identity, have equal opportunities to participate, contribute, and thrive within the organization. Focusing on key steps will help achieve this:

  1. Assessment and Awareness: Begin by assessing the current state of access within your organization. This includes evaluating policies, practices, and physical spaces to identify any barriers that may exist and to determine how closely each aligns with the values and ends of your organization.
  2. Education and Training: Offer education and training programs to increase understanding of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Address topics such as unconscious bias, cultural competence, and inclusive communication. Utilize multiple platforms and mediums to ensure high access to training opportunities.
  3. Policy and Procedure Review: Review and revise policies and procedures to remove any barriers to access. This should involve updating recruitment practices, accommodating diverse learning styles or abilities, and ensuring facilities are physically accessible to everyone.
  4. Engagement and Empowerment: Actively engage staff in as much of the decision-making process as possible. Create opportunities for staff to voice perspectives, have access to decision-makers within the organization, voice needs and concerns, and empower them to take leadership roles within the organization.
  5. Collaboration and Partnerships: Collaborate with external organizations, community groups, and stakeholders to leverage resources and expertise in advancing equity and inclusion.
  6. Continuous Evaluation and Improvement: Establish mechanisms for ongoing evaluation of progress toward equity and inclusion goals. Solicit feedback from staff, track metrics, and adjust strategies as needed.

By integrating these principles into the fabric of your organization, you can foster a culture that values equity and inclusion and ensures that everyone has the opportunity to fully participate and thrive.

Learning outcomes:

  • How to identify barriers that limit equitable access to programs and opportunities, and how to remove barriers once identified.
  • How to empower employees at all levels to engage in creating opportunity by providing input to process change and development, as well as how to empower management to listen and incorporate staff ideas.
  • How to identify educational opportunities through continual evaluation of processes and trends.

Who should attend: General Managers or Department Managers, Administrative Department Staff – marketing, human resources, finance, IT, etc.

Immunity to Change

Laura King, Leadership Development Coach and Facilitator, Columinate

In this interactive workshop, participants will go through a process to explore how personal, conflicting commitments can derail a genuine desire for change. Deep-rooted assumptions or beliefs that are unconscious or hidden are often competing with our personal change goal(s).

We will play out scenarios as a whole group to go through the immunity to change process together. After this introduction to the process, there will be opportunities for participants to apply the learning to themselves and their own change goals.

Participants will use writing prompts, group sharing, and interactive exercises to go through the step-by-step process individually. Upon completion, participants will have a better idea of what gets in the way of reaching their goals and how they may hold themselves back from important changes they want to make.

This session is for leaders ready to explore an empowering relationship with change. If there is a change you strongly desire and it isn’t happening, it is rarely about willpower or wanting it enough. If your thoughtful plans and intentions are resistant to change, it is beneficial to explore unseen motivations, perceptions, and/or beliefs. The learning outcomes for this experiential session are the following: Participants will

  • Have an expanded understanding of change
  • Have more insight into competing commitments
  • Uncover new ways to approach changing goals going forward
  • Be able to bring back a process to support real and lasting change
  • Increase understanding of personal behavior change

Cooperatives are called to be catalysts for change. Human beings have a uniquely personal experience with change that can support, stall, or hinder organizational change. This workshop explores the inner currents at play regarding change as an opportunity for a more aligned relationship to change and support the great work of co-ops.

Learning outcomes:

  • Have an expanded understanding of change
  • Have more insight into competing commitments
  • Uncover new ways to approach change goals going forward
  • Be able to bring back a process to support real and lasting change
  • Increase understanding of personal behavior change

Who should attend: General Managers or Department Managers, Board Members, HR Managers, Department Managers, Leadership Postions

Addressing the Gender Pay Gap

Shari Gross, Board Treasurer, Erie Food Co-op
Mike Houston, General Manager, Takoma Park Silver Spring Co-op
LeAnna Nieratko, General Manager, Erie Food Co-op
Melinda Schab, General Manager, Moscow Food Co-op
Mark Thorne, Board President, Moscow Food Co-op

Female and non-binary General Managers continue to earn less than their male counterparts. At the current rate of change, it will take women and non-binary folks more than 250 years to close this pay gap. In this panel presentation, you’ll hear about the strategies utilized by two different co-op managers and their board members to create positive change.

Learning outcomes:

  • Hear from other co-ops addressing the gender pay gap to learn about their challenges, processes, and future considerations
  • Learn about community resources available to help educate your co-op’s leadership team on the importance of pay equity
  • Learn about pitfalls to watch out for when undertaking the compensation process

Who should attend: Board of Directors, General Managers or Department Managers

Transformative Leadership: A journey, not a destination

Danielle Scallin, Training Coordinator, BriarPatch
LeeAnne Haglund, Director of HR, BriarPatch 

BriarPatch Food Co-op’s Human Resources department supports 260 employees at two stores in Northern California’s Sierra Nevada Foothills. Over the past several years, BriarPatch has developed training and support to meet the needs of its employees, both professionally and personally, to be engaged and effective in their work. This ongoing level of commitment to staff and leadership development is a model that inspires ongoing change, fosters innovation, and cultivates a culture of continuous improvement.

By utilizing both internal and external training models, BriarPatch has expanded our training to new areas, including customer interactions and outcomes, accountability for supervisors, intentional leadership, and neurodiversity. By supporting staff with training in broader areas of experience, we have seen a shift in culture to a leader model, with staff in departmental roles feeling more connected to the whole of the co-op and its goals. Not only do staff understand the Ends Policies, but they also demonstrate a commitment to mission values and have consistently been engaged in BriarPatch activities of all kinds within the organization.

Additionally, BriarPatch conducts an annual staff survey, where we consistently survey staff satisfaction at the highest levels compared with co-ops across the county. In 2023, our engagement scores for 98% of our staff were 3.8 or higher. Staff responses were highest regarding questions of job satisfaction and the simple yet pivotal question, “Is BriarPatch a good place to work?”

Our intentional and focused leadership meets the needs of employees where they are, and we repeatedly hear how staff feel valued and heard in our stores and support offices. Since the inception of our updated training model with implementation from our Training Coordinator, we have seen more engagement in Open Book Management and the completion of 1,500+ hours of training for staff in the last year alone. Our culture is quickly shifting to one where our leaders are asking for evermore training opportunities, knowing that they will be supported on their path of continuous growth, learning, and adaptation. They realize that leadership is not merely about maintaining the status quo; it’s about embracing transformation as an ongoing journey.

In this training, we will discuss transformative storytelling, offering practical tools to enhance communication and connection with others. We will have the opportunity to explore our own leadership styles and gain insights into how self-awareness can strengthen our connections and leadership approach. We will also look at implicit bias, emphasizing the value of recognizing and mitigating biases to foster a most inclusive and equitable work environment. Together, we hope to deepen our collective understanding of effective leadership practices and leave the session transformed.

 Learning outcomes:

  • Understand transformative storytelling and be able to tell a transformative leadership story.
  • Learn and understand leadership styles: find their most dominant traits and begin to think about adapting them.
  • Learn about personal bias and identify personal bias and its role in leadership.

Who should attend: General Managers or Department Managers, Store Department Staff – grocery, wellness, deli, meat, etc.

Co-ops as Conveners: Partnering to Address a Community Crisis

Rochelle Prunty, GM, River Valley Co-op
Laura Frogameni, Preschool & Partnership Coordinator, Early Childhood Center at the Northampton Public Schools
Bonnie Hudspeth, Consultant, Firebrand Cooperative

Throughout history, co-ops have responded to the unmet needs in their communities. When River Valley Co-op expanded in 2021 and increased the co-op workforce by 50%, co-op leaders observed a new trend. There was a noticeable decrease in applicants with young children, particularly women.

Like many people in our communities, co-op employees are facing the affordability crisis of housing, food, and childcare. The pandemic has only deepened this crisis. Tens of thousands of parents and caregivers in Massachusetts, primarily women, have left the workforce due to the lack of affordable childcare, and most families with young children struggle to keep up with the high cost of care. This nationwide crisis has led many Massachusetts families to pay between 20% and 40% of their income for childcare. This lack of accessible childcare also makes it hard for businesses to attract and retain a skilled workforce and for the economy to grow. River Valley Co-op’s goal is to make working at the co-op feasible for the whole community, including young parents.

The co-op’s board and management wanted to learn more about this crisis and what they could do to address it. After discussion with local childcare advocates, childcare center directors, and elected officials, the concept of doing a childcare pilot program emerged to explore new ways to meet the needs of the co-op’s employees, the larger community, and to demonstrate how using local, community-based small business partnerships is part of the solution to the national childcare crisis.

Come learn more about how River Valley Co-op is acting as a convener of small childcare businesses and advocates and being part of the solution for this unmet childcare need, both for co-op employees and the larger community.

Learning outcomes:

  • Learn about River Valley Co-op’s process of community organizing and relationship building with childcare organizations, advocates, and elected officials to explore collaboration for addressing a community-wide crisis.
  • Learn more about childcare challenges and solutions, how this impacts food co-ops as they work to hire and retain employees, and how partnering with other organizations can help food co-ops address inequities for women and parents of young children.
  • Learn how to not be afraid to take small steps to address large systemic challenges, how to work with your co-op’s board, management, and consultants to deeply research the challenges your co-op is facing, and then how to tap into local, state, and national resources to address social equity issues in your community.

Who should attend: Board of Directors, General Managers or Department Managers

Track 3: Diving into Member Engagement: Deepening Connections

Communicating with Owners, GMs, and Fellow Directors: Strategies for Board Engagement in Policy Governance

Marie Isley, Board Chair, Whole Food Co-op
Amber Schlater, Board Secretary, Whole Foods Co-op

Board meetings often present challenges in effectively engaging owners, general managers (GMs), and fellow directors, especially within the framework of policy governance. The one-voice approach can sometimes create an atmosphere that feels distant or unwelcoming to stakeholders. However, creating a warm and inclusive environment while upholding policy is not only possible but essential for fostering trust and collaboration within the organization.

This workshop aims to equip board directors with the necessary skills and strategies to communicate effectively with owners, GMs, and fellow directors while maintaining the integrity of the one-voice policy. Participants will explore and learn from each other various methods to create a welcoming community and navigate communication challenges, both within and outside of board meetings.

Learning outcomes:

  • Participants will engage in dialogue sessions, enabling directors to exchange insights on successful and ineffective strategies, thereby enhancing problem-solving skills and fostering collaborative learning within the community.
  • By exploring communication practices and strategies, attendees will gain the knowledge and tools necessary to cultivate an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere within the board of directors, owner, and general manager relationships, promoting trust and synergy among stakeholders.
  • Through discussions and case studies, participants will identify best practices for their boards to operate and speak with one voice, ensuring consistency and coherence in communication efforts, and ultimately strengthening the effectiveness and impact of board governance.

Who should attend: Board of Directors, General Managers or Department Managers

Supporting Neurodiverse Staff and Customers

Gabby Davis, Racial Equity & Food Justice Manager, National Co+op Grocers

Discussions surrounding neurodiversity have gained momentum in recent years, despite the longstanding existence of this population. This session is designed to introduce cooperators to helpful information and innovative concepts that may shed light on unfamiliar aspects. It will explore strategies for dismantling barriers and creating opportunities, fostering a framework for delivering an affirming and equitable experience for folks entering the co-op to shop and work.

Learning outcomes:

  • Empower session participants with practical strategies to identify, address, and remove barriers hindering success for members, customers, and colleagues with neurodiverse conditions.
  • Introduce novel concepts and insights that expand participants’ awareness of the diverse range of experiences with neurodiversity.
  • Educate attendees about neurodiversity and its significance in the context of food co-ops, highlighting the benefits of embracing diverse perspectives and abilities among both staff and customers.

Who should attend: General Managers or Department Managers, Store Department Staff – grocery, wellness, deli, meat, etc.

Know Your Audience: Collecting, Understanding, and Applying Customer Knowledge to Compete

Brandon Bills, Director Business Development, PCC Community Markets
Susan Livingston, VP Marketing + Purpose, PCC Community Markets

Improve your customer knowledge to better serve your target market and compete with the competition! This breakout session provides actionable guidance on how to better understand and act on your customer insights, including collecting customer information, understanding and analyzing insights data, applying this knowledge to business strategy, and making data-based decisions.

From small businesses to large organizations, this session addresses the core steps associated with collecting and acting on insights from your customer audience in terms that are scalable to organizations of any size. Case studies and examples will be provided for audience consideration, as well as sample data sets for the audience to interact with during the session.

Learning outcomes:

  • Learn why customer segmentation, targeting, and positioning is important in a competitive business environment
  • Understand core steps required to collect and interpret customer insights, for organizations of varied size/expertise
  • Gain strategies to apply customer insights to organizational strategy

Who should attend: Administrative Department Staff – marketing, human resources, finance, IT, etc.

Feed Communities: Transforming Communities through Nutritional Equity

Allanah Hines, DEI Coordinator, Board Chair, Weaver Street Market

Food cooperatives are vital food hubs in our communities, providing access to local, fresh, and nutritious products. Yet, behind the shelves of abundance lies a sobering reality: the distinction between hunger and food insecurity. While some experience fleeting hunger from missed meals, others grapple with the constant uncertainty of where their next meal will come from.

As beacons of community support, food cooperatives have a unique opportunity to lead the charge in combatting food insecurity and promoting nutritional equity. By championing economic diversity and inclusivity in our cooperative endeavors, we can foster a more just and equitable food system where access to nutritious food is a fundamental right, not a privilege.

To combat these challenges, it is first important to understand food insecurity as it permeates communities worldwide, with vulnerable populations disproportionately affected by its ramifications. Despite living in a nation abundant with food resources, millions struggle to access adequate nutrition, exacerbating health disparities and perpetuating cycles of poverty. Simultaneously, alarming levels of food waste plague our grocery stores, underscoring the urgent need for systemic change.

In this presentation, we delve into the multifaceted challenges of food insecurity, the symbiotic relationship between nutrition and community well-being, and the groundbreaking initiatives enacted by Weaver Street Market to address these pressing issues. Weaver Street Market’s recent transformation within the RoundUp program exemplifies an unwavering commitment to addressing food insecurity, as we redirected our focus to the Food for All program, which offers discounts to SNAP participants. In this move, we are working to break down barriers and increase access to high-quality, nutritious food for all members of our community. This innovative approach underscores the transformative power of cooperative action in creating a more inclusive and equitable society.

Nutritional equity transcends the mere provision of food and encompasses the holistic well-being of individuals and communities. By prioritizing economic diversity and inclusivity in our cooperative practices, we demonstrate our dedication to equity in action. Together, we can pave the way for a future where every member of our community has access to nutritious food, empowering them to thrive and flourish.

The journey to transform communities through nutritional equity requires collective action and unwavering commitment from all stakeholders. By embracing the principles of economic diversity, inclusivity, and community empowerment, food cooperatives like Weaver Street Market are at the forefront of driving transformative change by addressing food insecurity and promoting nutritional equity. Let us continue to harness the power of cooperation to build a future where access to nutritious food is a reality for all.

Learning outcomes:

  • Develop a common language that differentiates between hunger and food insecurity, emphasizing the varying levels and impacts on individuals and communities and allowing for reflection on their cooperative initiatives and commitments to food insecurity and nutritional equity
  • Highlight the unique position of cooperative initiatives in addressing food insecurity, leveraging access to local, fresh, and nutritious food to make a meaningful impact in communities
  • Better understand the history and evolution of Weaver Street Market’s RoundUp program, outlining its history, evolution, and the goals and outcomes achieved as a foundation for creating actionable steps they can implement to address food insecurity in their communities

Who should attend: General Managers or Department Managers, Administrative Department Staff – marketing, human resources, finance, IT, etc.

Staying Relevant: The Evolving Story We Tell Ourselves and Our Customers

Tony White, GM, Skagit Valley Food Co-op
Leigha Staffenhagen, Community Marketing Manager, Skagit

Skagit Valley Food Co-op (SVFC) in Mount Vernon, WA, has been serving good food at a fair price to the Skagit Valley area for 50 years! With over 13,000 active members and thousands of non-member shoppers, SVFC has found a way to remain relevant in the ever-changing landscape of grocery retail.

In this workshop, you’ll hear from Skagit’s General Manager, Tony White, and Community Marketing Manager, Leigha Staffenhagen, on how Skagit has remained a destination for shoppers, both locals and out-of-towners, since 1973.

You’ll learn more about how SVFC has been able to swiftly pivot its market strategy throughout the years. Currently, SVFC’s strategy for differentiating itself and staying relevant in the grocery industry is to maintain a strong connection with four major stakeholder groups: current members, non-member shoppers, future members, and staff.

Current members: the lifeline of the co-op’s shopper base. How does SVFC connect with them today, and what does the future hold?

Non-member shoppers: how SVFC works to gain visibility and exposure with non-member shoppers and travelers to the region.

Future members: how SVFC plans to transform non-member shoppers into future core members.

Staff: the most important stakeholder group! Learn how SVFC is working to engage staff in a manner that makes their work more meaningful than just a job.

 Learning outcomes:

  • Outreach/Marketing strategies
  • Connecting with owners and shoppers via shared values
  • Utilizing staff to connect with members – our strongest connection tool

Who should attend: Board of Directors, General Managers or Department Managers

Track 4: Steering the Co-op Ship

50 Years of Food with Purpose: Leading City Market, Onion River Co-op through Growth, Transition, and Celebration

Kristina Sweet, Board President, City Market Onion River Co-op
Sam Werbel, Vice President, City Market Onion River Co-op
John Tashiro, General Manager, City Market Onion River Co-op

For over 50 years, City Market, Onion River Co-op has been central to a thriving community in and around Burlington, Vermont. Originating as a buying club, City Market is now a two store co-op with close to 12,000 member-owners and 330 staff, generating annual sales exceeding $55 million. Over recent periods of growth and transition, the Board of Directors and General Managers have worked collaboratively to build trust, evolve new ways of working, and jointly steward the co-op through both turbulent times and a celebratory 50th year.

In this session, they will share their approach to building trust and communication between the Board and GM, efforts to diversify the Board’s composition to better reflect our community, and strategies for creating space for inclusivity, diversity, equity, access, and social justice (IDEAS) work.

From monthly board meetings grounded in a sound communication philosophy as well as retreats for discussing key strategic initiatives to the intentional focus that has diversified the board’s composition while dealing with some unexpected turnover, this co-op has built a strong foundation to position itself to navigate many challenges from the past to the present. These include the cultural and financial shifts from a $20 million second store expansion within the last six years, managing the peak and post COVID operational norms, and overseeing successful union negotiations, among others. Through it all, the Board and GM have found creative ways to stay connected, build a stronger relationship, and even have a bit of fun in between. Are you excited to share and help take your co-op to the next level? Join us to learn about the key insights, perspectives, and tangible tools, as well as a behind-the-scenes look into how this co-op continues to successfully overcome a variety of situations and stay true to its mission in the cooperative spirit!

Learning outcomes:

  • Ways to establish a stronger working relationship between the Board and GM
  • Tools to better plan, structure and set expectations with Board related meetings, retreats and activities
  • Finding a good balance among the Board, GM and staff around the co-op’s operational workings

Who should attend: Board of Directors, General Managers or Department Managers

Expect the Unexpected: A GM Change

Wendy Walter, Human Development Manager, Oryana Community Co-op
Sarah Christensen, GM, Oryana Community Co-op 

Are you a GM preparing for your upcoming retirement? A board member who knows a transition is coming? While the date may be undetermined, the fact of the matter is that all co-ops will experience GM transitions. During this working session, led by a GM who recently went through the process of both leaving a GM position as well as the hiring process for a new role and the HR Manager that supported the transition, we will touch on the administrative tasks that are included in a GM change, brainstorm ways to ensure that onboarding is successful, welcoming, and inclusive, and share tips for how the Board can support the staff, the new GM, and the outgoing GM. Much of this work can be done in preparation of a GM giving notice, departing, or a hiring decision being made. The goal of this session is to leave with at least one new idea or resource that can positively impact your preparedness for the upcoming change.

Learning outcomes:

  • The attendees will leave with a fillable chart, with some items pre-filled and some brainstormed during the session, of items that will need to be completed in the event of a transition.
  • The attendees will engage with two presenters, one recently hired GM and one HR Manager, on their experiences during the interview process.
  • The attendees will engage with each other to discuss how to ensure that co-op staff are informed and engaged in what will be a dramatic change in their work experience.

Who should attend: Board of Directors, General Managers or Department Managers

Navigating Unity: Aligning Vision and Values across Members, Board, and Management

Nick Clark, Board President, Hanover Food Co-op
Eric DeLuca, Board Member, Hanover Food Co-op
Amanda Charland, General Manager, Hanover Food Co-op                 

The Hanover Food Co-op has been on a multi-year journey to incorporate members’ diverse perspectives into daily operations. We’ll detail our process of crafting comprehensive Vision and Values statements derived from member input that resonate throughout the entire organization. We’ll explore how these statements were seamlessly integrated into Policy Governance at the board level and empower management to make impactful decisions at the operational level.

The development of Vision and Values statements inspired the board to rewrite its Ends, Executive Limitation, Governance Process, and Board-General Manager policies.

Learning outcomes:

  • Learn how to develop Vision and Values statements collaboratively with board members and member input.
  • Learn how to integrate Vision and Values statements into Policy Governance, encompassing effective policy monitoring.
  • Gain insights into leveraging Vision and Values statements for operational decision-making, fostering a cooperative culture.

Who should attend: Board of Directors, General Managers or Department Managers

Transformational Leadership: Effective Strategies for Democratic Leadership

Jade Barker, Consultant, Columinate

In the last few years, the food co-op movement has experienced seismic levels of change. Hammered by ever-increasing competition, to survive, we must adapt to a rapidly changing landscape that’s increasingly difficult to predict or control. One of our greatest strengths in this challenge is our cooperative identity —autonomous associations of persons united voluntarily to meet our common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations. As a movement, we pride ourselves on our inclusivity and democratic nature. And yet, as we become more diverse, we are realizing that creating alignment among people with diverse perspectives is no easy task.

Most of us don’t have life experiences that adequately prepare us to lead democratically. Board leaders may find themselves frustrated or disillusioned when others fail to meet their expectations or hold strongly differing opinions. In response, leaders may resort to blaming others or lowering their expectations, actions that our co-ops can not afford. The dynamics of leadership can be especially confronting in relationships where there is a real or perceived imbalance of power, such as across race or gender.

Transformational leaders know that everyone has something to contribute and are skilled at developing and encouraging the strengths of others. Transformational leaders understand the value of accountability and use it to support others to be their best. Transformational leaders don’t claim to have all the answers, but rather, elicit and respect the wisdom of those they lead.

Come to this workshop if you want to learn and practice equity and inclusion in your co-op relationships —or all your relationships! While this workshop will touch on the GM/board relationship, it is relevant for anyone in a position to hold someone accountable (which essentially means all of us). In addition to practicing leadership skills, participants will be encouraged to share transformative leadership experiences from their own cooperative journeys.

We are all leaders. Come learn together how to harness your leadership to transform the world.

Learning outcomes:

  • Create accountability without blame or shame
  • Increased confidence in navigating relationships with power imbalances and/or across race, gender, class, etc.
  • Specific ideas about how to make those you supervise and/or support feel more included, valued, satisfied, and productive
  • How to make accountability more fun

Who should attend: Board of Directors, General Managers or Department Managers

Steering the Ship Towards Big Dreams

Audrey Griffin, CPA, Finance Consultant, Columinate
Wynston Estis, Retail Operations/Project Manager, Columinate 

We all want to be catalysts for positive change, but how do we know when the co-op is ready? In this post-pandemic world, we have seen board and management behaviors very similar to those who lived through the Depression, such as a strong desire to save money and a fear of taking risks with it. While that’s completely understandable, we’d like to talk through some of the indicators that it is time to move forward on those big dreams that were put on the shelf in 2019 as we figured out how to survive. Or, is it time to move ahead with permanent adjustments to your retail plan due to new shopping patterns? This session will explore some of the indicators that it’s time (or not) to take those next steps forward on big projects. Wynston Estis and Audrey Griffin will walk you through operational and financial indicators for readiness to start moving on to your post-pandemic dream co-op.

Learning outcomes:

  • Identification of financial indicators to monitor to decide if the time is right for a big project or risk
  • Right-sizing your co-op’s opportunity based on what you’ve discovered in step one
  • Now you have a plan and are ready to set sail

Who should attend: General Managers or Department Managers

Track 5: Strategies to Compete

The Role for Food Co-ops in the Solidarity Economy Movement Building

Jamila Medley, Organizational Development & Leadership Consultant, Columinate

After years of resistance and struggle, social movements in the United States are exasperated. Simultaneously, the solidarity economy movement is ascendant and growing. Co-op leaders are responding to community needs during a time of global catastrophes, personal losses, celebrations, and the need to rest. All of this can make us feel weighed down and disoriented. This workshop is designed to reinvigorate food co-op leaders who might feel stuck and are looking for ways to put solidarity and cooperation back at the center of their food co-op enterprises. With priorities like economic justice, democratic participation, and environmental sustainability many food co-ops put their values into practice through mutualism and other opportunities to demonstrate concern for community. US food co-ops have an opportunity to emerge as important cornerstones in solidarity economy building efforts. The solidarity economy movement – an organizing framework for those who wish to create a systemic commitment to and practice of interdependence and collective liberation in the economic activities that meet our material needs (definition from the Solidarity Economy Principles Project) – is growing and reaching new audiences across the US. While many US communities are leveraging cooperatives as a tool in solidarity economy building – consider the growth of worker co-ops and the dozens of Black-led start-up food cooperatives – many cooperatives and cooperators have lost touch with the social movements that spawned their creation. Impacted by the challenges of daily operations, striving to address myriad governance concerns, and making efforts to take advantage of emerging opportunities, food co-ops can get mired in the weight of operating in a silo. Many are the only cooperatives in their town or city. Some might know that other co-ops exist nearby but struggle to sustain relationships. Staying connected to a cooperative identity beyond the “co-op” in a store’s name can be really hard. At the same time, other food co-ops are at the center of movement building efforts in their regions. They help start new co-ops, advocate for legislation that will better serve their communities, and organize with other solidarity economy formations towards a just transition. The workshop will begin with a brief presentation to ground participants in common language and shared knowledge. Opportunities for personal reflection as well as small and large group discussions will generate celebration, assessment, new ideas for member and community engagement, and renewed commitment to being a part of the rising tides lifting communities through cooperation and solidarity economy movement building. When we have the opportunity to be together, we need collective opportunities to learn, to remember our roots, and continue to build a shared vision towards a more just world. This workshop provides that space.

Learning outcomes:

  • Explore what makes up the contemporary solidarity economy movement by looking at examples of regional solidarity economy ecosystems
  • Examine how food co-ops have been, are, and could be connected to social and economic movement histories and contemporary efforts
  • Identify the intersections and commonalities cooperative values and principles have with those within the solidarity economy movement

Who should attend: Board of Directors,General Managers or Department Managers

Financing Variations (a.k.a. Capital Stacks): Three Case Studies

Maggie Cohn, Loan and Outreach Officer, CFNA
Sam McCormick, General Manager, Assabet Cooperative Market                                              
Jenny Silverman, Board Treasurer, Dorchester Food Co-op                                           
Rochelle Prunty, GM, River Valley Co-op 

This presentation will examine two recently opened and one recently expanded food cooperatives with different approaches to building their capital stacks. The presenting co-ops are located in different communities, with a preponderance of lower-income residents. The Dorchester Food Cooperative is in Dorchester, MA, the largest neighborhood in Boston, MA; 75% of residents are BIPOC, and 24% of households have income below the federal poverty line. Assabet Cooperative Market is in Maynard, MA, a former industrial town surrounded by wealthier communities; 84% of the residents are white. River Valley Cooperative is in Northampton, MA, and recently opened a second store in Easthampton, MA. Both Northampton and Easthampton have populations with approximately 30% making less than $50,000 per year.

These co-ops experienced varying abilities to qualify for and access grant funding, federal, city and state funding, and member investments and loans. Their experiences demonstrate some of the ways communities are addressing the increasing expenses of building a food cooperative and the diverse paths to successful fund-raising.

The Dorchester Food Cooperative successfully applied for a variety of local, state, and federal grants. Assabet Cooperative Market, in a higher-income community, was not eligible for grants, but successfully raised funds from their community. River Valley utilized member loans and New Market Tax Credits and partnered with others on solar tax credits.

Learning outcomes:

  • What type(s) of funding can work for your cooperative?
  • How and when to aggressively pursue foundation funding and state and municipal grants
  • How to structure a successful member investment or loan campaign
  • What tax credit programs exist, and can you utilize them?

Who should attend: Board of Directors

You Had Me at Community – Strategies to compete and differentiate in your market

Pam Mehnert, GM Mentor and Coach, Columinate
Lisa Malmarowski, Marketing and Retail operations Consultant, Columinate

Most co-ops operate in competitive markets that look nothing like they did when the co-op opened, let alone five years ago. In our workshop, we will address the need for co-ops to respond to this competitive marketplace by identifying the importance of why they exist and using those reasons to develop effective competitive strategies. This topic will be presented through the lens of the Cooperative Principles of openness to everyone, concern for the community, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.  Participants will learn:

  • What strategic positioning is, and isn’t
  • What the Golden Circle model is, and how it can be used to get to the heart of why their co-op exists
  • What managing cultural change looks like in strategic planning
  • Walking the talk of diversity, equity, and inclusion through impactful actions and storytelling
  • Examples of strategic development and marketing highlighting our work at Outpost Natural Foods Co-op
  • Information from their peers in small break-out table conversations
  • How to capitalize on the large segment of their communities that care about value-driven businesses

Learning outcomes:

  • Understanding that store operations support the strategy, they are not the “strategy”
  • Large segments of the community choose to support values-driven businesses, and cooperatives have this baked into their organizations through the Cooperative Principles. They will learn how this differentiation offers a unique advantage to win over this like-minded segment as members and customers.
  • A strategy that deeply incorporates your values may feel threatening to some segments of the community, but a clear strategy built on your values will ultimately be the most authentic and powerful differentiation in their market.

Who should attend: General Managers or Department Managers, Administrative Department Staff – marketing, human resources, finance, IT, etc.

The Merc Case Study – All a Board!  A journey to open a second store

Seth Nauman, Director of Operations, The Merc
Anthony Lang, director, The Merc                                                
Mark Spraugue, director, The Merc 

In 2019, the Merc Board of Directors voted to support the expansion of the Community Mercantile into a second store located 40 miles east of the Lawrence store.  The Unified Government of Wyandotte County had approached The Merc about operating a grocery store in the underserved, marginalized, immigrant community of Kansas City, Kansas (KCK), not to be mistaken for its bustling border twin, Kansas City, Missouri (KCMO), which happens to be home to the 4X Super Bowl Champion Chiefs. Market studies had shown this area to be a food desert, with some small ethnic stores, one Dollar General, and no major grocery stores in the area. The Board examined the market studies, participated in listening sessions, evaluated our bylaws, and took a hard look at our financial position before we unanimously voted to expand into KCK for our second store. We took active steps to expand our board and appointed new board members who were organic representatives of the KCK community. We recruited new member owners and set up elections that brought on more representation from the KCK community. The Merc conducted listening sessions to understand what the community wanted and needed in their local grocery store. We applied for WIC and SNAP programs and added products to our shelves to expand access for all. We were intentional in creating not just a grocery store but another Community Mercantile to serve a community that was very different from Lawrence, Kansas, in terms of demographics, income, access to transportation, access to jobs, access to markets, and access to healthy, nutritious food. This information session will talk about all the steps we took to bring a community grocery store to KCK, all the planning and intentional steps we took as a Board, all the challenges and pitfalls we faced along the way, how we supported and challenged the GM and her staff, and all the lessons learned and are still learning.

Learning outcomes:

  • The role of the board in strategic planning, supporting, and enabling the opening of the second store
  • Expanding the board to be more diverse and inclusive
  • Updating bylaws and policies to support expansion

Who should attend: Board of Directors, General Managers or Department Managers

Regenerative Food: Key Messages, Industry Accountability and What It Means for Organic

Mike Wenrick, Director, Purpose, PCC Community Markets
Susan Livingston, VP Marketing + Purpose, PCC Community Markets                                     
Joe Dickson, Co-Founder and Head of Standards and Policy, Merryfield 

Building on key outcomes and learnings from the “Convening on Regenerative and Organic Food Systems” event in Seattle, WA in February 2024  that brought together nearly 100 farmers, natural food brands, food retailers, agricultural non-profits and government representatives to discuss the future of regenerative agriculture, this session will be led by the convening’s facilitators, Susan Livingston (VP, Marketing + Purpose PCC Community Markets),  Mike Wenrick (Director, Purpose at PCC Community Markets), and Joe Dickson (Merryfield Co-Founder and Head of Standards & Policy).  The session will begin with a presentation that lays a foundation for how food systems in the United States have progressed from regenerative indigenous foodways, to industrialized conventional food systems, to the rise of organic foods and finally to our present-day exploration of regenerative organic agriculture. The session will proceed by breaking attendees into facilitated small groups of 10-15 participants. Small groups will explore the following questions:

  • How do we make regenerative accessible to co-op members and customers? What are key messages?
  • What is the role of retailers who prioritize organics in the regenerative movement?
  • Is organic regenerative? If not, where does organic fall short?
  • How do we safeguard the strength of regenerative in the marketplace to ensure the term does not become watered down like “natural” or “sustainable”?

The session will conclude with each small group reporting out themes, areas of collective resonance and dissonance, and brainstorming potential collective action related to regenerative agriculture and food systems.

Learning outcomes:

  • Attendees will understand the relationship between regenerative agriculture and organic agriculture and how they can work in support of one another.
  • Attendees will understand key messages related to regenerative foods and how to communicate those messages to their customer base in ways that will build support and loyalty for brands that nourish the health and well-being of people and the planet.
  • Attendees will have better knowledge about regenerative standards to safeguard against regenerative “greenwashing”

Who should attend: General Managers or Department Managers, Administrative Department Staff – marketing, human resources, finance, IT, etc.

Laying the Foundation for the Second Year of Co-ops

Kirstie Boyette, Associate Director, Cooperative Development Foundation
Erbin Crowell, Executive Director, Neighboring Food Co-op Association
Doug O’Brien, President and CEO, National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International

With 2025 declared the second International Year of Co-ops, this workshop will explore of role of co-operatives – and particularly those in the food system – in advancing the UN Agenda for Sustainable Development. How can food co-ops contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals, which conclude just 5 years later in 2030? How can we work together across sectors and communities to advocate for policies that advance priorities of equity, inclusion, and sustainability, and enable co-operative enterprise to thrive? Proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly last November, the Year of Co-ops will be an opportunity to promote the contribution of co-operatives to the UN’s “Agenda for Sustainable Development.” A plan of action for “people, planet and prosperity,” the agenda include 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), many of which are directly relevant to co-operatives. For example, the resolution recognizes the role of co-ops in building a more inclusive economy, addressing climate change, and contributing to food security. The resolution also highlights the policy recommendations calling on governments to support co-ops as sustainable enterprises that contribute directly to good jobs, hunger alleviation, and economic inclusion. Toward this end, it further recommends reviewing
existing legislation and regulations to ensure that the legal and regulatory environment is in alignment with the Co-operative Identity and conducive to the creation and growth of co-operatives by improving existing laws and/or by establishing new ones. We will explore opportunities to the IYC to promote the co-operative difference, advance efforts to build a more just, equitable, and sustainable economy, and work together to grow the co-operative movement.