Vancouver Food Cooperative starved for support

Board president says members lag on volunteering, dues, even shopping there

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

Public meeting

What: Vancouver Food Co-op special meeting.

When: 6-8 p.m. Thursday.

Where: Fruit Valley Community Center, 3200 Fruit Valley Road.

Information:http://vancouverfood.coop

The Vancouver Food Cooperative at 1002 Main St. is owed $9,000 in unpaid dues by members who presumably signed up because they were inspired by the nonprofit grocery store's healthy, community-focused mission.

Their failure to back good intentions with dollars is emblematic of the co-op's whole problem, according to board president Kirk Wright: People who claim to care aren't keeping their commitments. Not only are they not coming through with the one-time member dues that capitalize the store's operations, he said, they're also not volunteering and not even shopping at the store enough to keep it alive.

The Vancouver Food Cooperative approved its charter and bylaws in 2009 and later established an online store and opened its downtown store. It is a member-owned and -operated company that emphasizes "real food," according to its mission statement: local, minimally processed, organic and healthy.

But barring a big, quick infusion of dedicated volunteerism — no later than a special membership meeting set for Thursday night — Wright said he expects the company to dissolve itself. That's after a period of "major financial stress," according to a letter that went out to earlier this month to the co-op's membership of just over 400.

"There have been many attempts to encourage shopping and to engage members and the community in store operation and staff volunteer positions critical to the organization.

After much deliberation, the board has come to the conclusion that the co-op cannot be sustained in its current form," the board of directors wrote.

"Without resources to operate the store and volunteers to perform the corporate work of the organization we see no choice but to close the store and dissolve the organization. Our bylaws require a members meeting be convened where members can vote on the dissolution and liquidation of the co-op."

That meeting is set for 6-8 p.m. Thursday at the Fruit Valley Community Center, 3200 Fruit Valley Road. Voting is limited to members, but the meeting will be open to the public. Despite a membership of more than 400, Wright said, there's been a core of around 15 people — including the six-member board — who are deeply involved in running the place.

"To sustain the hours and work of the store, we need more," he said. Nothing would be more welcome, he added, than an infusion of energy and dedication from new, paying members — or existing members who cough up their overdue dues and commit to getting involved as well — in time for that meeting.

Membership in the Vancouver Food Cooperative costs $180, payable in installments or all at once.

Opportunity persists

The news isn't all bad, Wright said. He said the co-op has grown 4 or 5 percent per month since it opened and now pulls in revenues of approximately $20,000 per month.

That proves that at least some of the community is interested and supportive, he said. "We are frustratingly close" to achieving success, he said — and yet frustratingly close to failure too.

What the organization needs — in addition to shoppers — is volunteers who do the work of "middle management," he said. That means people who want more than store busywork — people who will help plan, build systems and spread the word to the community.

Publicity may be the co-op's biggest failure, Wright said. "We haven't done the job we could have done in terms of ... a clear explanation of what this is," he said. "We haven't gotten the message quite right." Marketing the co-op probably should be the work of those true-believing middle-management volunteers he seeks, he said.

"If we had a dozen people who stepped up and really committed to being involved, it might make the difference," he said.

Equipment breakdowns added to the challenge of flattening sales earlier this year, Wright said, and it was the offer of a $20,000 loan from one member — a businessperson with resources — that forced the co-op board to face the big picture. Was a $20,000 loan just too large for an organization this close to the edge?

Yes, the board decided. It turned down the loan — and recognized that the decision was a big step toward dissolution, Wright said.

But the decision was narrow, he added. "The board didn't just throw its hands up," Wright said. "It was a divided vote, and they were really uncomfortable with that decision."

Earlier this year Wright told The Columbian that the store was doing "pretty well" — and needed to be doing about 10 times better.