In the picturesque town of Shelburne Falls, nestled between golden autumnal hills and overlooking the tranquil Deerfield river, is the office of a small regional co-op making a big difference. Western Massachusetts is home to people who love to help each other out, and who know how to come together for a greater purpose. That’s certainly one reason why we have such a thriving environment for Co-ops. Another reason is the hard work of organizations creating space and informing their peers and the public about the opportunities and benefits of working in cooperation.
The Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA) is a co-op that works for its members. Each of the forty-four regional food co-ops who make up its membership have access to its resources for promotion and education, as well as the generous accumulated pool of knowledge this organization represents. These resources can only come from a network of businesses in cooperation, with experienced and invested stewards. Who are these folks? What impact have they had?
For the Old Creamery Co-op, NFCA has been an invaluable resource. GMs have attended meetings and peer networking courses, as well as educational programs. We currently have board members who actively join the Board Peer Dialogue group, where board members can get together to share information, collaborate on projects, and support each other in board practices.
Suzette Snow-Cobb, Associate Director at NFCA, is even helping to facilitate the Old Creamery Co-op’s Board retreat this coming weekend, where the board will discuss its future goals and how best to support the co-op and its members. She has had a direct and positive influence on our little Co-op, and is a perfect example of what NFCA brings to the table.
Suzette has been working in and around co-ops for almost 40 years. Starting out in Cambridge Food Co-op, in 1985, she worked her way up to department manager before moving out to Western Massachusetts with her family. One of the reasons she chose this area was the Green Fields Market, the flagship for the Franklin Community Co-op (FCC) where she once again started out as a cashier before working her way up to manager. Eventually, the co-op needed new leadership and she stepped up as part of a three-member management team. Serving as the Marketing and Membership Manager while two of her peers covered finance, technology and food services, the three would spend the next fourteen years supporting and expanding the Greenfield co-op we know and love.
During that time there was a regional movement of co-op managers to network and combine their knowledge called the Cooperative Grocers Association of the Northeast (CGANE). These were folks who had a vested interest in their own co-ops and gathered together in their free time to share information, socialize, and even consult on each other’s businesses. There was also a national movement to combine Co-op buying power though purchasing contracts, which took the form of the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCG) and the Northeast region was assimilated into that structure. But around here there was still a desire for regional cooperation and a need to maintain the elements that NCG did not cover, like the pooling of information and tracking of the impact of the co-ops in this area. After a couple of years of organizing, the Neighboring Food Co-op Association was born, consisting of board members and managers from co-ops in this area, and one of the first things they did was to conduct a survey. At the time they had 17 co-ops participate and what they found was astounding; from jobs generated, the number of members, to the annual revenue. Seeing the impact of these organizations helps everyone understand the needs and movements within the community.
That was just the beginning. Today those numbers include 173,000 members of over forty-four individual co-ops with more than 2,465 good local jobs provided and they have $425,000,000 in combined revenue. Eleven years after that initial survey, NFCA is also able to break down this information even further, spotlighting $112,000,000 worth of local products sold across the network and contributing over $1.2 million to community organizations.
Access to this level of information is only a piece of the offerings. Practical data combined with programs for mentorship, workshops and classes, institutional knowledge, and peer networking help on the backend of any co-op. But the NFCA is also instrumental with proactive marketing and outreach.
While still working for FCC, Suzette helped to spur a radio initiative in which the Old Creamery Co-op has participated for the past two years. Working with WRSI, in conjunction with the National Co-op Month theme, they collaborated to generate a series of short ads promoting awareness of local cooperatives and the overall co-op mission. Still going strong over a decade later the program has expanded to thirteen packages with over one thousand ads played over four radio stations. It boasts a roundtable of regional co-op managers, which this year expanded to spread over two panels.
During her time at FCC Suzette was able to work, sit on the budding NFCA’s board, as well as continue her education. In 2013 she graduated from Saint Mary’s University with a Masters in Management of Co-op and Credit Unions. Eventually Suzette and the managerial trifecta decided it was time to step aside from their role at the Franklin County Co-op. From there, it wasn’t long before a space opened up at the NFCA that perfectly fit both her skills and her needs. In a moment of coming home to an organization she had worked hand in hand to help build from the ground up, she settled into a new mission of helping co-ops at an institutional level.
Working at NFCA she is able to manifest her interest in all things cooperative, constantly seeking out new ways for co-ops to work together. NFCA is a federation of co-ops, food co-ops are the members. It was important to Suzette that the organization be incorporated as a co-operative, something she had advocated for. Just like a food, art, farmer, or any other co-op, NFCA exists to serve the needs of its members. Its work includes key cross-sector components that promote the cooperative economy as a whole.
Our food co-ops are often the first job for young folks in an area, and many people find long term careers within them. Food Co-ops are often the first place a new business can sell their goods. In some cases family farms are able to subsist off a farmstand and the commerce of the local co-op. For Worker Co-ops, the owners are the skilled laborers and there are no shareholders demanding profit-driven policies. There is space for a balance between the ever-important bottom line, the technical aspects of running a business, and the benefits to the community. The values of the membership can find a meaningful place in business practices, from fair wages to the promotion of local products. What’s inspiring is the atmosphere between these organizations, communicating and connecting to help one another. It shows the power of people, connected through common interests, supporting their values across all boundaries.
If you’re a fan of co-ops and what they do, and haven’t yet become a member of our collective ownership, you can begin the process here.
Already a co-op member and interested in opportunities to make a positive impact? The best way to get involved and share in the process is to attend a board meeting. Board meetings for the Old Creamery Co-op take place on the third Tuesday of every month and are open to all members of the cooperative.
Come take part in the conversation, add your name to the volunteer email list, or even consider serving on the board yourself! Get involved with your co-op, bring your neighbors, and see what we can do when we all work together.