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People’s Food Co-op Annual Meeting 2013

Presentations on fair trade and members vote for board of directors

People’s Food Co-op board president, Bentley Lein, presenting his opening remarks at the annual meeting.

People’s Food Co-op members met in Rochester in early December to eat delicious food and listen to a presentation from the general manager and a panel discussion on fair trade. Those members attending who had not already voted by mail also filled out ballots to elect candidates to the three seats on the board of directors that are becoming vacant this year.

Michelle Schry, general manager, noted the Co-op’s accomplishments over the year, highlighting phenomenal growth in sales and membership and the exciting changes that have taken place with the new store opening in Rochester. The Co-op has posted an increase of 9.47% in sales over last fiscal year (including only one month of the new Rochester store), and we’ve added another 836 new members to the rolls over that time. Yet, Michelle noted, this was not simply growth for growth’s sake, but “we grow because we want to change the world. We want to make a difference in our communities.”

What that might mean in the real world was aptly spelled out by the presentation from Equal Exchange and the panel discussion from People’s staff members who have had the opportunity to travel to Central America and work with some of the farmers who supply our coffee.

River Cook, sales representative and co-owner of Equal Exchange, began the presentation with a short history of the fair trade movement in the United States and around the world. As she noted, co-ops such as People’s have built the fair trade movement over the past 30 years. At this point, Equal Exchange supplies PFC with fairly traded coffee, avocados, chocolate, nuts, tea, and bananas.

River explained Equal Exchange’s recent adoption of a new logo (Small Producer Symbol, as seen on this newsletter’s cover; SPP is its Spanish acronym—Símbolo de Pequeños Productores), as a farmer-initiated response to the North American fair trade movement’s move to include large-scale plantation growers under fair-trade labeling. This would effectively set small growers in unfair competition with large plantation fincas. The large plantations would have the advantage of economy of scale to dominate the market. This is not what the fair trade movement set out to accomplish when it began. Small growers in Central America came together to initiate a movement to promote authentic fair trade. Equal Exchange is seeking to expand this small producer’s initiative in its trading operations and its presence in the North American marketplace. This business model reflects our cooperative mission and will make a beneficial change in the lives of the small farmers. As River noted, the average output for small growers working with Equal Exchange is about 32 pounds of coffee a week. Shoppers at PFC buy about 273 pounds a week, which supports about eight farmers over the course of a year (and keeps La Crosse and Rochester perfectly caffeinated). Fair trade coffee sales in Rochester have greatly increased at the new store.

River has been to Central America several times to meet and work with the families who supply us with their products. She recounted for us a shared epiphany she had with one cooperative’s farmer. “My family’s success depends on your family’s success.” This was a theme echoed by the other three panelists at the annual meeting. Jen McCoy, Candace Herbert, and Margaret Mills, all People’s employees, have each traveled to Central America to meet and work with the farmers who supply us with our coffee. Jen McCoy, La Crosse store manager, noted, “the impact of fair trade in these communities is much greater than simply handing out dollars to the farmer; fair trade supports these communities’ social structure. Schools, electricity, clean water—all of these things are brought to these places through fair trade.”

As Margaret Mills, La Crosse Grocery Department manager, pointed out, “coffee is the second most traded commodity on the planet (after oil).” Fair trade allows the small farmer to take part in that commerce. Candace Herbert noted that two acres of Costa Rican coffee plantings will support four families.

Bentley Lein, board president and master of ceremonies for the day, closed the panel discussion noting, “the choices we make here affect people in other places.” He defined a co-op as “a group of people getting together to make the world a better place.” Through partnerships such as Equal Exchange, we may extend our communities and make a difference in a world beyond the local.

Jen McCoy, La Crosse store manager, with friend in Nicaragua, 2004.