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Lessons from the organizing campaign of the Oklahoma Food Cooperative

By Bob Waldrop, first president and general manager

A local food system starts in local kitchens, as individuals decide to take personal responsibility for the food they eat.

The permacultured kitchen is the essential foundation of a local food system. If we want a more sustainable and just food production system, then there must be a market for the products of sustainable and just food production systems. Personal and household choices about where and how we spend our kitchen money and time are critical to the design of the permacultured kitchen. This design process begins with observation of your present situation and an inventory of what you have and do, what you need, and the challenges of getting from here to there.

A local food system is about distributing basic foods; it does not look like Wal Mart. Don’t expect all the ersatz "convenience" offered by manufactured foods. The good news is that while the process is not always easy, the change that the permacultured kitchen brings to your household is uniformly positive. The food will be more nutritious, it will taste better, you will feel better about your work in the kitchen.

Basic principles of the permacultured kitchen:

  • Form and function follow food.

  • Eat with the season.

  • Be temperate in your selection of foods.

  • Prepare meals from basic ingredients.

  • Develop the organization and systems of your kitchen.

  • Recycle resources and energy

  • Process and preserve foods at home. Practice food storage.

  • Grow some of your own food.

  • Buy foods from local farmers and producers.

  • Never buy meats that originate in confined animal feeding operations.

  • Design for economy

  • Design for catastrophe

The best organizers are people who have advanced through the beginnings of this "permacultured ktichen" process and who are already actively buying, or looking for places to buy, local foods. In the case of the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, I had more than 20 years experience in preparing meals from basic ingredients, growing food, and preserving, processing, and storing foods. A year prior to the organizing campaign, I began to look for sources for local foods, and by the time the organizing campaign started, I was buying pork, beef, vegetables, and grain from local farmers. This gave credibility to my "buy local foods" message.

This was in 2001-2002, when the “local food” concept was not really on anyone's radar

Look for local food sources.

  • Online Directories. Some state departments of agriculture maintain directories of local food producers.

  • Farmers markets.

  • County extension agents.

  • Custom butchers.

  • Classified ads in newspapers.

  • Word of mouth.

The Oklahoma Food Cooperative organizers made extensive use of the internet. Besides the website, they organized a listserv to discuss organizing a local food cooperative, and joined many local internet discussion groups. (okfoodret@yahoogroups.com , whose archive contains a complete written record of the development of the cooperative from the first announcement of the idea to the present time.)

This was before the advent of social media, which makes all of this much easier.

Look for customers.

  • Local and state chapters of environmental organizations, in particular, look for Sierra Club chapters.

  • Homeschoolers

  • Weston A. Price Foundation local chapters

  • Churches

  • Local and regional internet discussion groups.

  • Food editors

  • Restaurant owners

  • Slow Food conviviums/contacts

  • Peak oil discussion groups

  • Doctors and medical professionals

  • Support groups for people with allergies

Cast your net widely.

Everybody has a right to eat and to access local foods -- not just the people who agree with you on politics, religion, or culture. The Oklahoma Food Cooperative is very diverse -- we have conservative evangelical Republicans, gays and lesbians, Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Southern Baptists, church of Christ, Muslims, Buddhists, pagans, Democrats, anarchists, socialists, atheists, and all points in between. There is no political, ideological, religious, or cultural litmus test to join and participate in the Oklahoma Food Cooperative. Many of our members would not normally even be in the same room as others, much less working with them across barriers of religion, politics, and culture, on a common endeavor. We find this to be very hopeful -- there is no lack of barriers dividing us these days, so it is nice to find that a diverse group of people can come together and work with each other on a common cause.

We don't make some kind of commitment to faux diversity; no one is asked to deny any deeply held belief. We just realize that some things are relevant to food, and other things in our lives aren't relevant to coming together at table fellowship. The Oklahoma Food Coop strictly does not get involved with politics, except for issues that directly relate to food. This include a ban on distributing partisan political literature at our pick-up sites during election campaigns.

Recruit members of church staffs "early and often". Churches were very supportive of the organizing campaign for the Oklahoma Food Cooperative. Epiphany Catholic Church let us use their facilities free of charge for 3+ years until we outgrew their building.

Share information.

The first step outside of the home kitchen is to collect and share information. I started a website, www.oklahomafood.org (it is now www.oklahomafood.coop ) to share the information I was finding about local food producers.

A group looking to start a local food coop needs:

  • A flagship website that will eventually be your shopping location.

  • Facebook page

  • Twitter account

  • Pinterest (to share pictures)

  • Perhaps an internet discussion group

Meetings and table fellowship.

Besides internet discussion groups, the Oklahoma organizers held a dozen meetings, in many different parts of the state. Usually the primary publicity was through free notices published in local newspapers. The meetings were held in churches and libraries, the best attendance at any of these meetings was 12. The people attending each meeting elected one person to serve as a member of the "Oklahoma Food Cooperative Organizing Committee."

The organizing committee incorporated as an Oklahoma Non-Profit Organization (we reincorporated as a coop when we started selling membership shares), and began holding monthly meetings. At each meeting, we had a potluck lunch. The organizers believe that this table fellowship was critical to the group’s success.

 

The group determined it was not feasible to open a store, so we invented an order delivery system with features as described below.

 

The Cooperative form of business organization.

A cooperative is a member owned business operation that exists to provide a service to its membership. In a regular corporation, whoever owns the most shares controls the organization. Coops are organized on a One Member, One Share, One Vote basis. Each person who joins buys a membership share and is then entitled to participate in the governance and operations. If a member leaves, the Coop will buy back their membership share, although most people either don't do this or donate it to the coop to give to a low income applicant.

There are many types of cooperatives – customer owned coops (like the traditional food cooperative which operates a store), producer coops (like farmers coops in rural areas), finance coops (credit unions), electricity coops, etc. The Oklahoma Food Cooperative is a multi-stakeholder coop, with both producers and members. The common service we provide to our producers and customers is a marketplace – a place for buyer and seller to meet and exchange money for goods. A coop is not a charity. It is not a non-profit organization.

Features of the Oklahoma Food Cooperative Method of Business

Monthly business cycle.

We do a monthly order delivery service. The order opens on the first day of the month. Customers order by browsing the product lists and clicking to add items to their shopping cart. When a customer orders, our online sales system creates two invoices: one for the customer, and one for the producer informing him or her what people have ordered. The order closes the second Thursday. Producers can then log in and click a link to access their orders. Delivery Day is always the third Thursday of the month.

Producers and Customers.

Producers and customers are members. Everybody pays the same amount to join, and has the same rights. Producers can buy, and customers can sell. One member, one vote, one class of membership stock. Each member is assigned a unique membership number (in sequential order, starting with 001, we are now over 5400). Since day 1, 240 members have qualified as producers. At the present time, we have about 100 active producers (who have sold something in the past year).

Approval Process for Producers.

To become a producer, members must apply. We presently have five types of producers. To sell in any of these broad categories, a producer must go through the approval process:

  • Food producer (basic foods, like meats, cheese, dairy, vegetables, grain, etc),

  • Prepared Foods (which must be prepared in a commercial kitchen),

  • Processed Foods (which must be prepared in a commercial kitchen and also must have a Processing Authority letter of approval for their preparation process),

  • Co-packed Prepared and Processed Foods,

  • Non food producer.

All applications are screened by the Standards and Producer Care Committees, to make sure they meet our standards. They must provide us a copy of any relevant licenses or certifications (kitchen inspections, organic, etc.). They must attend one delivery day and go through an orientation and participate in the work. The Standards and Producer Care Committees send someone to visit their operation and report back that their operation is in accordance with our standards and their application. In other words, if they say they are going to sell tomatoes, we want to see tomato plants. We charge an application fee, but we refund half of that as a credit towards Coop purchases if they are approved as a producer. (The approval process costs the Coop money, both in the form of time and in mileage page to the visitors). If both the producer care and standards committees approve the applicant, he or she becomes qualified to sell through our marketplace. If producer care and standards disagree, the Board votes on the application. If both committees disapprove the application, the applicant may appeal to the Board. That has never happened.

No limits on numbers of producers.

The coop does not limit the number of producers that can sell in any given product category. We decided this at the very beginning. If the Coop limits this, then the coop leadership gets into the business of picking winners and losers and while we think we are reasonably competent, we don't think we are that smart that we could do a good job with that. Customers like choice and this way they get what they want. Further, producers have been known to disappear overnight. One producer, who was selling several thousand dollars a month through us, woke up one morning and his wife wanted a divorce and they were out of business. We didn't have a blip in sales, however, because we had others selling in every one of their product categories. We think that if we had limited the number of producers who could sell through us, we would not be in business today.

Relationship between the Coop and its customer and producer members.

The relationship between the cooperative and its producer and customer members is an agency relationship.

We act as agents of the producers in listing their products, collecting the customer orders, arranging for delivery, collecting from the customers and paying the producer.

We act as agents of the customers in finding producers with products to sell, providing an order system, collecting their payments, and delivering their groceries. In our sorting operation, we are a cross-docking operation. The cooperative never holds title to any of the products. The products are always owned by either the producer or the customer. This is important for regulatory reasons.

This language was advised to us early on by attorneys.

The cooperative has been almost totally self-financed by the sale of membership shares, sweat equity volunteer workers, and in-kind donations. In our organizing campaign we received a few hundred dollars in donations (from the Sierra Club and the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House), in-kind donations from Epiphany Church in the form of free use of church space for meetings, delivery day, and banquets, and we received one small grant, most of which we were unable to use because we had requested the grant when our goal was to open a store and not all of the money could be re-programmed to fit our order delivery service.

Producers at our website.

All the producers have a page at our website to tell their story, plus their products are stored in its database. Their products are displayed sorted in various ways. Producers enter and edit their own information and products on the website. 99% of our producers have been able to do this. The cooperative does it at no charge for a small handful who don’t have computer access or whose computer is down. Each product receives a unique number, automatically assigned by the software when it is entered. Producers can specify inventory amounts in their product descriptions. As products are ordered, the inventory declines. If somebody cancels an order, the inventory increases. When all of the product is sold, customers can’t order it, but it continues to appear on the public price list.

Prices.

Producers set their own prices. The Coop does not get into pricing decisions.

Product Standards

Producer members must produce what they sell. They can't buy wholesale and sell retail by simply repackaging something. Producers can buy raw materials, for prepared foods, for example, but the producer must add value. "Re-packaging" is not added value. No confined animal feeding operation products may be sold through the cooperative nor may they be used as ingredients in processed/prepared foods. All must be from free ranging flocks and herds. Ingredients for prepared and processed foods may be bought from the regular food system, except that any meats or eggs must come from Oklahoma farmers with free ranging flocks and herds. Meats, dairy, and eggs must come from free-ranging flocks and herds. No animal products or antibiotics are allowed in feed, nor bovine growth hormones. Products do not have to be organic or all natural, but producers must declare what their production practices are at the cooperative’s website. No GMO ingredients are allowed in prepared or processed food products.

Customer Ids and Passwords.

Customers and producers are assigned a user ID and password. Their access to the members only parts of the website is governed by this, which enables us to have a basic level of access for everybody, and then various levels of administrative access for cooperative officers and volunteers.

Delivery Day.

We have detailed rules for producers bringing their products to delivery day and we are strict about enforcing these rules.

Producers are responsible for getting their goods to the delivery location. We have several producers who pick up items from other producers; those producers help pay for the gas for the driver.

Each product coming in to our operations center must be labeled with the name of the producer, the name of the customer, the customer’s delivery code, and what the product is. The cooperative's website produces labels which the producer can automatically download at any time after the order closes, so all he or she has to do is cut them apart and staple, tape, or otherwise stick the label onto the package. The labels are sequentially numbered and we expect them to present the packages for check in by that sequential number. This presorts the packages by delivery location and also speeds up the check-in process. A producer with say $8,000 in sales may have a 50 page invoice. To check in products in random order with an invoice that big is mind-numbingly time consuming. So we do them in order – 1, 2, 3, and etc.

Product packaging has been an issue. The flimsy plastic grocery bags are not that suitable for our system, since items have to be sorted and moved, and packages inside them can easily fall out. Attaching labels to such bags is next to impossible (well, you can attach them but they don’t always stay). For frozen items, the best packaging is ziplock bag, with the label inside the ziplock bag.

Each customer has a unique delivery code which is based on how they choose to get their food (pickup at one of several locations or home delivery):

We have hundreds of ice chests of varying sizes, for moving frozen and refrigerated items. For frozen items, we use food grade dry ice which we buy directly from a distributor, not from a retail store. We have used the re-usable "blue ice blocks" for refrigerated items, but that proved to be a nightmare as all the blocks did not come back after delivery day. So now we use bottles of frozen water.

Each ice chest is numbered. Keeping track of those ice chests and ensuring that they come back to each delivery day is a constant challenge.

The delivery day sorting process is organized in stations:

  • Frozen products

  • Refrigerated products (no produce)

  • Refrigerated produce (this is a separate sorting, because they go in separate ice chest, thus we avoid someone plunking 4 quart bags of greek yogurt on top of two bunches of tender greens, smashing the greens flat)

  • Non-refrigerated produce

  • Eggs

  • Other non-refrigerated items.

The ice chests are organized in the sorting area by pickup site. Each pickup site station has a variety of ice chests, – frozen, refrigerated, refrigerated produce, eggs. Each of those stations has logs. So if I put a dozen eggs from Emerald Farms for Member #200 John Doe picking up at Weatherford – I look on the log for member 200 John Doe Emerald Farm eggs and then I write the number of the ice chest beside that log entry. Those logs go to the pickup sites so members can find their refrigerate, frozen, and etc items. Their non-refrigerated items will be bagged together, but each member does some of the “last mile” of work by finding their own refrigerated and frozen items at their pickup sites.

All refrigerated items must arrive at our op center at refrigerator temps. We have a temperature gun and we periodically spot check this.

All frozen items must arrive at our op center frozen. If when checking items in we find thawed items, we reject them.

Once an item is checked in, we are responsible for it. If after that it gets lost, damaged, destroyed, or we are unable to collect from the customer, the producer still gets paid.

Producer Payments

Producers that bring their orders to delivery day themselves, and are willing to wait around an hour or so (we encourage them to help with the work), can pick up a check that day for their orders. We mail out any remaining checks within a day or two of delivery day. Some producers are paid via ACH, those go out on Monday following our Thursday delivery day (due to bank procedures, that's the earliest we can get an ACH to them). We automatically deduct our commission from the producers' checks. We also automatically deduct any other amounts owed to the Coop (typically for refunds to customers over quality issues).

Pick-up Sites.

Each pick-up site needs:

  • A way to get its groceries.

  • A manager.

  • A cashier.

  • A way to get the ice chests back to the op center.

In a small site, all four of these jobs may be one by only one or two people. At larger sites, there may be different people for each of these jobs plus extra helpers for the members picking up at the site.

Managers can see in advance of the order, at our website, what orders are coming in to their site and how much in the way of food and non-food items. The managers can access the contact info of the people picking up at the site. Most sites have an informal method of reminding people to pick up their food on delivery day.

Pickup sites are typically open two to three hours.

All orders must be paid for by the customer before leaving with the groceries.

In the OKC area, any left behind orders or items are returned to the op center on delivery day when the ice chests come back. Outside of OKC, each pickup site has its own rules and ways of handling this issue.

Sometimes we lose or damage an item in transit, or it is otherwise not found by the customer at the site. No one has to pay for anything they don't get or that is damaged, spoiled, or otherwise not up to standard. The site cashier notes the issue on the cashier's log and the customer receives a credit. There are, however, always more “lost” items than there are “found” items. As we sometimes say, “This is a great mystery.”

Communications

Besides our website, we do email, Facebook, and Twitter. We use Constant Contact for our email communications. Typically during an order period there will be an email nearly every day. There is an email announcing that the order is open on the first day, and an email on the last day reminding everyone that the order closes at midnight that day. Each cycle has three emails that are nothing but producer communications. They are allowed to send 300 words plus a picture, although not everyone does this each order cycle. We have a marketing person who writes emails touting various items for sale each month. We highlight eight products every day (this changes every day) on the front page of our website. Each month I write a propaganda email, which over time have come to be known as “bobaganda” about Why We Should All Eat More Local Foods.

Further Information

After you have read and digested this information, and if you have further questions, contact Bob Waldrop at 405-200-8155 or president@oklahomafood.coop. The Coop has hosted teams from other areas who want to observe and participate in our delivery day.

 

Oklahoma Food Cooperative
PO BOX 681, Oklahoma City, OK 73101