Our 2020 summer Market Co-coordinator Anna McKinnon explains why co-ops can be models for participatory social change.
Fireweed Delivery Coordinator Conor Nedelec delivers food to the Norwest Co-op Community Food Centre in a Peg City Car Co-op van! Photo by Colby Deighton, courtesy Peg City Car Co-op
Do you think it’s unfair that most people devote 40 hours a week of their lives to a job, yet have little say in decision-making, nor any share in the profits of their labour?
If so, you might be interested to learn about co-ops! Co-ops are organizations and businesses that are member-owned, meaning that those who are the most impacted by decisions are the ones making them-- and that profits are redistributed amongst members or key, identified stakeholders. And possibly the best part of co-ops? They have a commitment to operating democratically, following a set of principles that prioritize equity and community in the work that they do.
Co-ops' economic impact is also sizeable: Last year alone, co-ops in Canada provided goods and services to over 8 million members, and employed more than 95,000 Canadians; here in Manitoba alone, we have over 400 co-ops doing important work in our communities. The benefits of co-ops to a local economy are also valuable: Co-ops are more likely to use local products in their operations, and community service co-ops like Fireweed reinvest their profits in the services they provide their members, meaning that financial benefits remain within the community.
Read on to learn more about co-ops, and how Fireweed Food Co-op works!
A Brief History of Co-operatives
Co-ops that exist today largely take their values from one of the first co-ops to emerge from the Industrial era. In 1844, the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society was formed by a group of cotton mill workers in the North of England. As mechanization of weaving expanded, skilled weavers quickly found their talents were no longer profitable. Forced to take low pay
ing, factory jobs, these workers were separated from the means of production that had once allowed them control and autonomy in their work.
Tired of struggling to survive on their own, this group of workers decided to pool their resources and purchase essential goods they could not otherwise afford. Initially offering only four items, the co-op quickly expanded into consumer co-op where shoppers could become members of the organization, hold a stake in the business, and share in its profits. This spirit of cooperation and collaboration continues to guide co-operatives in the present day.
While many co-ops operate as for-profit businesses as the Rochdale Pioneers did, many others (like Fireweed!) operate as nonprofits. While co-ops vary in membership structure and economic sector, they are guided by a set of seven internationally agreed upon principles that seek to ensure that democracy, equity and solidarity are prioritized in the enterprise’s work.
1. Voluntary and Open Membership – Open to all to join & use their services!
2. Democratic Member Control – Members make policies & decisions democratically (1 vote per person)
3. Member Economic Participation – Members make decisions regarding profit allocation
4. Autonomy and Independence – Organizations remain democratically controlled by members even if they have entered into partnership with other organizations
5. Education, Training and Information – Provide education to members and employees, so they are able to contribute to the development of the cooperative. Also includes a commitment to public education regarding the benefits of cooperatives
6. Cooperation among Cooperatives – working with cooperative organizations on a local, national and international level
7. Concern for Community – cooperative’s work is driven by the needs in their community
Fireweed Food Co-op
Fireweed Food Co-op operates as a multi-stakeholder, non-profit co-operative, including both producers and consumers of local food as members. As a founding member of Fireweed (then Farm Fresh Food Hub), Katie Daman says, the founders were drawn to the cooperative structure due to the values embodied by the 7 cooperative principles, and their strong desire to prioritize the ownership and involvement of the co-op’s stakeholders. In choosing to be a co-op, Katie says that it was the founders’ hope that this model would help to build trust amongst members, and would help ensure that those impacted by the organization's decisions would have a say in making them.
Fireweed's team in action this spring, cooperating to put together a socially-distanced (m)Other's Day Market
Fireweed strives to create a more resilient, equitable and sustainable local food system both by supporting its stakeholders in distinct and complementary ways. It supports small and mid-sized, sustainable producers to access an urban market and supports consumers by working to reduce barriers that inhibit access to sustainably produced, local foods. By allowing both producers and consumers a say in the organization, the organization is held accountable to its members.
Since its outset, Fireweed has had the chance to be involved with other important organizations in Manitoba’s co-op community. Working with Assiniboine Credit Union and the Manitoba Cooperative Association have been important avenues for Fireweed to access community grants for programming. These grants and the support they offer have been important supports as Fireweed grows.
With the launch of the Food Hub this past summer, Fireweed has had the chance to partner with several other interesting co-ops that are working to increase access to local food within the city. Organic Planet Worker Co-op is an organic grocery store and vegan deli located at 877 Westminster. Organic Planet tries to support local producers and other Canadian Co-ops whenever possible, and so purchasing through the food hub offered them the opportunity to do both! Being a worker co-op also means that Organic Planet’s policies and direction are set by the employees that work there, helping to ensure that it operates as a fair and equitable business as it helps to provide folks with good food.
The Norwest Health Co-op’s Community Food Centre has been another important Food Hub
customer. Purchasing from the Food Hub through Direct Farm Manitoba’s Food Currency Program (DFM is another cooperative organization of which Fireweed is a proud member!), the Norwest Community Food Centre works to provide fresh fruit and veggies to community members that might otherwise face barriers in accessing this food. The Community Food Center also provides a space where community members can come to enjoy a meal, learn about gardening, and sign up for courses that help teach important cooking & healthy eating skills.
Beyond creating a space to partner with co-ops involved in food, the launch of the Food Hub left Fireweed in need of a delivery vehicle. While purchasing a vehicle would have been a major expense for the organization, partnering with the Peg City Car co-op allowed Fireweed to integrate another local co-op into the Food Hub’s supply chain, and access a delivery vehicle in an economical and sustainable way.
The Peg City Car Co-op is a car share program that started out in Winnipeg in 2011 with only three vehicles on the road. Today, they have grown to almost 60 vehicles, and over 1700 members. Fireweed’s Food Hub is using one of these 60 vehicles every Wednesday to deliver our producer’s fresh, local food to grocery stores and restaurants around the city!
Colby Deighton, the Member Services Representative for the Peg City Car Co-op, emphasized how important the co-operative structure has been as the co-op has grown. Being member owned and operated has helped the co-op to remain accountable to its members and founding values. The ecological and financial benefits of car-sharing show why the service has become so popular. One car share alone can take up to 15 vehicles off the road, and people can save up to 75-80% on transportation costs by using the service. Car sharing is not only attractive to those with environmental concerns, but also appeals to people financially. Colby says that one of the great aspects of car sharing’s design is how it forces members to be intentional in their transportation choice. By showing members what they’ll be paying for each drive they take, people are encouraged to use alternative transit (bikes or public transport), and drive only when there’s no other option.
While Fireweed has had the chance to work with a few of the important co-ops operating here in Winnipeg, there truly is no shortage of co-ops working to provide their communities with important services. If you are passionate about building a more just and sustainable economy, keep searching out co-ops in your community that you can support today!
Become a member of the Fireweed Food Co-op!
Government of Canada – Cooperatives in Canada https://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/106.nsf/eng/home
International Cooperative Alliance – The Rochdale Pioneers https://www.ica.coop/en/rochdale-pioneers
International Cooperative Alliance - Cooperative Identity, values & principles https://www.ica.coop/en/cooperatives/cooperative-identity#:~:text=The%20Statement%20on%20the%20Cooperative,and%20democratically%2Dcontrolled%20enterprise.%E2%80%9D