by Julie Zilles, Board President
A series of news stories earlier this year about the closing of several Kroger stores remains stuck in my head. The storyline is a familiar one, not at all unique to Kroger. The stores were not performing well; they were located in low income and/or minority neighborhoods. The grocery industry has long operated on a tight margin, and with the pressure of increasing online food sales, the expenses of brick and mortar locations come under tighter and tighter scrutiny. Compared to the number of stores within the corporation, the closures were a small fraction.
Why, then, has this particular story been stuck in my head? Maybe it’s because two of the stores were in Peoria, where I was born. Actually, one of the stores was less than a mile from the house I spent my earliest years in. For the people living there, the impact is large. Maybe it’s because the announcements prompted protests, including some high profile ones led by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, because of the decision’s impact on minority communities. Or maybe it’s because the closures expanded food deserts and reopened the conversation around access to healthy food for Peoria’s South Side neighborhoods. Starting a food co-op was one of the ideas raised in those conversations, as reported by the Peoria Journal Star (January 12, 2018), and that kind of news tends to catch my eye.
Whatever the reason, when I was asked to write this article, the impact of corporate missions and their corresponding business decisions on the communities they do business in was very much on my mind. The co-op model stands in sharp contrast to corporate ways. Both our mission and our governance are completely different. Our cooperative exists to serve our needs and to meet the Ends we’ve agreed upon together. Community and local are deeply embedded in what we do. End 1: The Co-op is the center of a vibrant, inclusive community. You can see this concern for community in our educational materials, classes, and community events. End 4: Our local food system is equitable, robust and environmentally sound.The most visible evidence of our support for local is our amazing array of local products.
The part I’ve come to appreciate only after serving on the board is how much the cooperative principles and our Ends permeate our governance structure and decision-making processes. We are both a business and a cooperative. While the finances are an essential piece of our continued existence, our decisions aim to integrate the business perspective with accountability to owners, cooperative principles, and our Ends. The grocery industry is changing rapidly, and we need to adapt and innovate. We need to do it together, though, and without losing sight of the implications of decisions on our owners and our community. Our board and General Manager are working on a visioning process. Although we don’t yet have the next steps finalized, what I can say is that there will be lots of opportunities for input and discussion along the way. We’ll be reaching out to staff, owners, producers, and people who are not yet part of our community as we imagine many different futures and identify new ways to work together and strengthen our cooperative.