Cooperative Evolution: Food coops like Seward and the Wedge have adapted quickly during troubled times

Photo via The Wedge Cooperative

Access to food is about as elemental as it gets. But in troubled times with lives on the line, not every grocery store has responded to the pandemic with equal skill and speed.

Well into April and May, we visited grocery stores in Minneapolis where masking, even by employees, was sporadic, social distancing was irregular, and store capacity was unannounced and unenforced.

And in the wake of the death of George Floyd, reaction from companies has varied from nothing to brief, almost neutral statements expressing a hope for racial equality, to deep community engagement. Many grocery stores have ended up toward the “nothing” side of the spectrum.

But in the food retail sector, one store format has adapted to the challenges of 2020 with surprising speed: food cooperatives, which are by many counts more prominent in Minnesota than in any other state in the union. Co-ops, which are member-owned and governed, straddle a line between for-profit and non-profit businesses, as they endeavor to sell goods to sustain themselves and grow while serving the needs of their community.

The roots of food co-ops stem from a desire on the part of farmers to eliminate middlemen, share risk, and bring crops to market, says Craig B. Upright. Upright is the author of the new book “Grocery Activism: The Radical History of Food Cooperatives in Minnesota,” which traces the movement from its roots in the 19th century through the so-called Co-op Wars of the 1970s up through the modern organizations that dot the current day retail landscape. From that initial wellspring of the movement up until the current day, co-ops have adapted to their times while retaining their essential member-driven character.

That character—and the size of co-ops relative to big grocery chains—helps these stores adapt to challenging times. “If Cub [Foods] wants to change their policy, they have a huge corporate structure to go through to implement it, even on a local level,” says Upright. “The co-ops, because they are run by their members, because they exist as independent stores within this larger federation of coops, they’re much more nimble, and they’re much more able to change their policies faster than the larger big box stores.

The Seward Cooperative on Franklin Ave. // Photo via Seward Cooperative

Priority No. 1: Safety

That ability to shift policy in response to a crisis was tested this spring with the emergence of COVID-19.

Josh Resnik, CEO of the Twin Cities Co-op Partners—which runs Wedge Community Co-op and Linden Hills Co-op—was poised in March to spend four days at a natural foods conference in Anaheim, California. But vendors began dropping out—by the dozen and then by the hundreds—and the conference was canceled as the severity of COVID-19’s impact became clear.

Instead of networking with industry peers, Resnik stayed in Minnesota. “I spent those four days working with my team and saying, ‘What is our plan if we’re going to operate in this environment?'” he says. His team’s biggest move—the one that guided every response that followed—was establishing four baseline principles for pandemic response.

“The first was safety,” he says. “The second was food access. Third was employment, and fourth was long-term business sustainability. Everything got looked at through that lens and it all had to start with safety. What would create a safe environment for our shoppers and employees? We were one of the first to install plexiglass [screens]. We put marks on the floor to create social distancing, we put caps on the total number of shoppers.”

Even as Resnik and his team worked to create distance and barriers to infection, they also strove to provide access to food, something their community relied upon. “The idea of shutting down or going to down to only five shoppers at a time—we wanted to make sure, especially in March when there was this panic-buying—we wanted to make sure there was a really good supply of food and people knew they could trust us as a place they could come and get the food they needed,” he says.

Keeping food available and keeping employees and customers safe, says Resnik, meant that jobs could be preserved, as well. “Keeping jobs and keeping people employed was paramount,” he says. “Knowing there was a lot of employee uncertainty, we created policies around our leave options. We had different leave options where people who wanted to come in and felt comfortable, they had a place to come and continue to get that paycheck, but for other people with personal or family health concerns, we had different programs in place to make sure they were covered.”

For Sean Doyle, the general manager of Seward Community Co-op, the pandemic presented an even more urgent threat when one of the store’s employees at the Franklin Avenue location was diagnosed with the disease in March. Seward was transparent about the diagnosis and their response to it, which touched off considerable media coverage.

“We closed our Franklin store,” recalls Doyle. “We had no real clarity about even what the protocols for cleaning was.” At the same time, Doyle says, the whole Seward infrastructure was buckling under demand from consumers.

“What was happening prior to that closure was that same period about six to seven days where our sales were almost twice the normal volume,” he says. “We were in this incredibly manic place just doing what we could just to keep the shelves stocked—I was working stocking groceries which I haven’t done much in a long time, because the scale of the co-op is we have three businesses and 260-plus employees, it’s just not the best use of my time. Every hand was on deck, you’d open up a box of pasta, and before you could get it to the shelf literally people were taking it from you. Or you’d put it on the shelf and turn around and it’d already be gone.”

Under the pressure of TV cameras reporting on the COVID-19 diagnosis at the store, Doyle and his team adapted with furious speed. “The Franklin store really drove our Friendship store to make immediate changes and we tried to find everything we possibly could out there about what protocols could be in place to protect our employees and our customers,” he says. “Within a day or two we had plexiglass up at the point of sale, [and] we started to regulate the number of people who could come in the store—at first it was 50…now it’s 30. It’s been a state of constant refinement.”

Community and employee involvement has been key, says Doyle, to driving new policy to keep Seward Community Co-op community members healthy. “That community includes our shoppers, our employees, our members, and the broader geographic community around our location,” says Doyle. “We don’t operate in a bubble. We might have an ideological bubble, but we don’t live in a physical bubble. That is what drove us to adopt, early on, a lot of our social distancing protocols. Our whole model was let’s try something and if that doesn’t work, let’s revise, let’s revise, and let’s revise.”

Constant, fearless iteration marks the effort at the Wedge as well. If you visit the Wedge’s website, you can read a log, tracked by date, detailing all the changes the store has made in response to COVID-19. It’s an unusual amount of transparency, and it reflects co-ops’ dedication to collective decision-making.

All of this dovetails with the essential DNA of co-ops. One of their core ideals, says author Craig B. Upright, is the concept of community. “The idea of ‘what’s best for our community?’ is really driving what they’re doing,” he says. “Rather than trying to extract resources from their membership and their customers, they’re thinking about how do we re-funnel these resources into our store and our community. That willingness to do what’s right for their community is part of what’s guiding this.”

A Community United in Anger

The historic protests that touched off in Minneapolis in May 2020 presented another challenge for co-ops. “It was very trying, especially for me being a Black male,” says Ray Williams, who is the operations manager for Seward Community Co-op, recalling the events that began with the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

“I often operate within a level of fear as a Black male, and that didn’t necessarily change but there was a very high level of frustration—‘Oh my god, we’re living through this again, seeing another person killed at the hands of the police,’” Williams says.

The co-op’s mission, says Williams, helped to guide its response to the killing and the community outcry that followed. “What happened with George Floyd was very unfortunate and as a co-op we stand on the side of being vocal and we stand in solidarity when it comes to injustices in our community and in society as a whole,” says Williams.  “We didn’t have to sit down and make a decision as to whether we were going to respond to George Floyd—we knew we were going to respond. It was just what response we were going to give.”

Seward Co-op was unique in that not only were its values as a co-op put to the test by the killing and the community response to the killing, but its stores were physically proximate to the unrest. The store’s Friendship location is located just blocks from 38th and Chicago where Floyd was killed, and looters breached the store’s Franklin location and attempted to break into its ATM. Ultimately, the community helped protect the store from further destruction.

“When the stories circulated around about neighborhoods being under attack by what appeared to be white racists, and a number of different employees shared experiences on that front—a lot of them were active on block responses,” recalls Seward general manager Sean Doyle. “Neighbors at both locations made the co-op part of the area they were guarding,” he says. “The neighbors without our asking—nor could we ask because of legal liabilities—stood guard to protect the community’s assets. It was really moving in a lot of ways to see the community step up that way.”

The co-ops, in turn, donated food and water to support the protests and their neighbors.

For all their adaptation, says Doyle, the path ahead remains one that requires constant questioning and searching.

“If our primary purpose to sustain a healthy community—how do you sustain a healthy community in a pandemic, in a period of incredible [wealth] disparity as well, that showed up before the pandemic, and before the murder of George Floyd—we’ve been asking ourselves that,” he says.