All posts by John Brantly

CoopCAMP_ teens 2016_small

Co-op Camp Creates a Community for Teens to Explore Cooperatives

Kyle 1This summer more than 40 teenagers from across North Carolina attended the annual Co-op Leadership Camp held at the NC FFA Center at White Lake, North Carolina. The week-long overnight camp is a program of the Cooperative Council of North Carolina. The event immerses high school students in the cooperative world. The teens use the cooperative business model and Seven Cooperative Principles to organize a mock t-shirt co-op. The teens attending the camp each have a co-op sponsor.

Weaver Street Market sponsored Kyle Burns, a high school student from Fuquay Varina. Kyle’s peers selected him to receive one of the CLC Leadership Awards. He was honored at the closing banquet awards evening. After attending the camp, Kyle observed, “The things that I learned in those four days are more important than anything I have learned in the past 17 years.”

He also told us he likes to write, so we asked him to write about his experiences at the camp. Here’s the story of his remarkable journey of personal growth and community building as he engaged the world of cooperatives:

What Co-op Leadership Camp Means to Me

A few weeks prior to me writing this article, I received a set of papers from my parents, which they had obtained from our next-door neighbors. The papers in question introduced me for the first time to the Cooperative Leadership Camp, which is hosted every year at the NC FFA Center at White Lake, NC. Now to be completely honest, I thought nothing of it at the time; it was only the second time I had ever heard of a cooperative, outside of my business classes in high school.

Like many people I know, I like to stick to routine and very rarely take on new experiences. I am not really the type of person that likes to camp or socialize outside of my comfort zone—I would much rather spend my time on the beach than at a camp somewhere. To put it simply, I don’t like to come out of my shell a whole lot. But if I hadn’t, I would have missed an opportunity like no other, an opportunity to become a part of something bigger.

_DSC1719In a little over four days, I reconnected with myself, made relationships with people that I’d never have made before this camp, and became a better person. I can say all of this and it will mean nothing—unless you have the chance to be in my shoes, you will not understand the emotion I am feeling when I write this.

I have grown up in a metropolitan area for most of my life and have bought into the whole ‘status quo’ thing. One of the biggest problems with my generation is that they are misguided. Most people like me are concerned with useless notions like complexion, popularity, the social hierarchy, and money and affluence. Yet when I was at camp, none of this mattered, and it gave me the chance to realize how pointless all of this stuff is. I found myself in my element. I met people that are usually out of my preference, built long-lasting relationships that were stronger than most I have known, and experienced a warm, unbiased community among a group of people that could stand up to the test of time.

Activity_1Before now, I was concerned about how much money I could make, how much influence I could obtain, and how much I could build myself up. I am an opportunist—I take something that has practically no worth and turn it into a gold mine. I wanted to start my own company and make a sizable profit, but after going to camp, I came to realize none of that matters, that what is worth more is the impact that I have on my community and the people in my life.

I learned the value of what it means to be human. I learned that true wealth is measured in the character of an individual, not the amount in his bank account, and that no matter how different a group of people are, they can find it in themselves to come together and take on the world.

Activity_2The ideas, the people, and the connections that I obtained at camp can’t be taught in schools, bought, or even acquired. They have to come within you. The things that I learned in those four days are more important than anything I have learned in the past 17 years. I went in with the misguided notion that it would not be worth my time since I had no interest in being a farmer and ended having my life changed for the better.

I experienced a community with the counselors and my peers that is indescribable. I knew that I could say or do anything and they would support and cherish me all the way, that no matter what our differences were we had a mutual respect for each other. I had only known this group of individuals for a matter of days, but it felt like I had known them for years. There was a sense of a sort of family unity, I ‘loved’ these people. But not like a husband loves a wife, but like a brother loves his sister or a father loves his son.

At the end of the day though, it doesn’t matter what you did, but how you did it and who you did it with. I saw a side of myself that I have never seen before, and I would recommend you join me because you will get more out of life than you have ever gotten before.

dairy farmer

Co-op Partners–Featuring Cabot Creamery

buildingOver the past two years, we’ve increased the products we buy directly from other co-ops. Not only does this support co-op producers who share our values, but buying direct eliminates middlemen, enabling us to pay a fair price and still offer the products to customers affordably. The Riojana wines, from La Riojana Co-op in Argentina, have sold 36,302 bottles since we introduced them in October 2015 (through June 2016). Over the past winter, we sold 128,791 fair trade avocados from PRAGOR, a farmer co-op in Mexico, imported by Equal Exchange. There are many great stories we could share, but this year, we’ve got dairy on our minds.

A “dairy” good co-op
farmerYou may have noticed more and more products from Cabot Creamery in our stores: it started with some basic cheddar, followed by wax-coated blocks of aged Cheddar just in time for the holidays. Then followed cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, sour cream, butter, canned whipping cream, and cream cheese. Most recently, we’ve begun using Cabot products “behind the scenes” in our stores and at our Food House: the cottage cheese on our salad bars, the butter in our kitchens and pastry bakery, the shredded cheese in our prepared foods, and the sliced cheese on our sandwiches. We swapped Cabot cheeses into our sliced deli cheese offerings and were able to drop the price. The wide use of Cabot products throughout our stores makes ordering easier and reduces costs, because we can place large orders more regularly.

And Cabot dairy is not just any old dairy. In the 1980s, Cabot began entering cheese competitions, and in 1989 they won first place in the Cheddar category at the US Championship Cheese Contest. Since then, they’ve continued to enter national and international competitions. Their Cheddar has won every major taste award, including the world’s best Cheddar. Recent [2016] awards include best of class at the World Championship Cheese Contest for their plain Greek yogurt and their sharp Cheddar.

In August of this year, the American Cheese Society awarded Cabot first place for their Muenster cheese, which can be found in our specialty department.

Family farms
Cabot-Lucas_Farm_smallCabot Creamery is a cooperative owned by 1,200 family dairy farmers in New England and New York. It began in 1919, when a group of dairy farmers near Cabot, Vermont, joined forces to turn their extra milk into butter and to sell it throughout New England. Today, the co-op manages four plants that turn the farmers’ fresh milk into butter, cheese, and the other dairy products. (Cabot offsets all its butter churning with renewable energy produced at Barstow’s Longview Farm; grocery store food waste is converted to energy in an anaerobic digester!) All profits are paid back to the farmer-owners, who elect the co-op Board of Directors.

The co-op supports participation in the National Dairy FARM Program (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management), which provides guidelines for animal welfare and periodic farm inspections, including some by third-party certifiers. Cabot farm families have been awarded the New England Green Pastures Award 83 times. The award acknowledges environmental practices, contributions to agriculture and the local community, and overall excellence in farm management practices.

Co-op and community
CabotVolunteer2Cabot Creamery is “all about community and cooperatives.” Every other year, they send a team along the East Coast on the Cabot Community Tour. As part of the tour, Cabot will join our Co-op Fair on September 11. They will sample cheeses paired with our WSM breads and Riojana wine. Cabot is sponsoring a raffle for Cabot gift baskets for $1 and $5 donations which will benefit our Cooperative Community Fund. Cabot will match donations up to $1,000.

Cabot encourages farmers and customers to volunteer by offering monthly prizes and annual grand prizes, including an annual cruise hosted by its farmers. Cabot awarded Weaver Street Market a spot on this year’s Cabot Celebrity Cruise in Alaska for an outstanding volunteer from our community. In October, WSM will accept nominations for the spot and will select five finalists. Cabot will make the final award in November. Watch for details in our weekly e-newsletter and on our social media.

Cabot also partners with co-op groups to spread the word about co-ops. For the North Carolina leg of the Community Tour, Cabot is partnering with the Cooperative Council of North Carolina (CCNC) to create community events that bring together co-op members and leaders to celebrate cooperatives and exchange ideas. CCNC will also participate in our Co-op Fair.


Behind the scenes in the merchandising department

Many of you out there recognize me as the gal that’s been working in Weaver Street Market’s produce departments for over a decade, first in our Carrboro store and then in our Hillsborough location. Maybe I cut you a slice of my favorite apple (or one of my favorites—it’s so hard to choose!), the variety called Jazz, or told you how to prepare and cook fennel, or how to peel a butternut squash. You might have seen me deep in a bin of Carolyn_store_tomatoeswatermelons, handing them one by one to another member of the produce team. I love produce, and I love my job. This past winter I was given the opportunity to take it to the next level as the produce, meat, and seafood merchandiser. I packed up my apron and produce knife and headed over to our admin offices in West Hillsborough to start my first ever desk job!

What is a merchandiser, you ask? Good question, as I am still learning myself. In essence, we are the head buyers for our departments. We decide what (and what not) the co-op is going to stock on its shelves, what price it will be, and what items will be on sale each week. Carolyn_atHerDeskWe manage vendor relations, and research and vet new vendors to continue improving our product selection. Sound easy? It’s not! It’s actually surprisingly difficult and complex. Because of the co-op’s high standards and broad customer base, it often feels like I’m juggling many opposing needs. On one hand I strive to have the highest quality and the most socially and environmentally responsible products and to pay the producers the best price for those products. On the other hand I’m trying to bring our customers the best possible deals. Some days it all falls into place. Other days are met with much gnashing of teeth.

Carolyn_VisitingFisheryTankAfter so many years in a position where I felt fairly confident, I have suddenly been thrust into a position in which I am a little uncertain, a little wet behind the ears. It’s like being a senior in high school and then going off to college as a freshman. Everything is new and a little daunting, but there is great opportunity for personal growth. I am learning so much about the “back end” of running Weaver Street, and what it takes to produce and market all of the products that we carry. I have learned more than I thought I could know about shrimping, the seasons of the Mexican avocado, and the raising of pasture-raised beef.

The most rewarding part of my job is working with small farmers and producers, from Harkers Island, North Carolina, to Anchorage, Alaska. I feel like I am making a real impact on their lives by purchasing from them, as opposed to buying from huge distributors who could take us or leave us with no adverse effects. Just last week I spoke with a small-scale fisherman in Alaska via satellite phone. It was an exciting change from dealing with a broker in an office to speaking with the guy who actually caught the fish that we are going to sell. From April through August, I talk to Russ Vollmer from Vollmer Farm at least once a week about the berries we are purchasing from them. We talk about the challenges of managing a farm staff, how the weather is affecting the crop, and new varieties he is excited to try. When we buy from these small producers, we are making a commitment to support not only their businesses, but their livelihoods.

The thing I miss most about working in the store is my special customer interactions. There were the customers I knew, and those whom I recognized by their preferred produce purchases, and those whose children I saw grow up, and those who became friends over time. I miss having the opportunity to give face-to-face customer service. Because that’s what Weaver Street is all about. We may not be as cheap as Walmart, or as flashy as Whole Foods. But we comprise a group of people who truly care about their jobs, their community, and each other.



Coming Together to Feed the Hungry in Orange County

by Brenda Camp, Community Outreach, Weaver Street Market

SVProduceThe Bridge is a new blog with a mission “to showcase cooperative activities that build healthy & sustainable local communities; and to educate & inform the public about these efforts in an effort to raise the visibility & impact of North Carolina & South Carolina cooperatives.”

The following appeared on The Bridge: “Connecting Cooperatives in the Carolinas,” on July 1, 2016.

Shoppers entering a Weaver Street Market (WSM) store are immediately greeted by bins mounded high with colorful, vibrant fruits and vegetables. Our natural, organic, and local produce is a big draw for our shoppers—15% of our sales come from produce. For us that’s an important measure of success. Connecting our owners and shoppers with food that is healthy, tasty, and fun is one of our 2020 Goals. Two years ago, a community volunteer, Mary Carey, came to us with a very different vision of success. She and leaders from four local hunger-relief organizations reminded us that there are many, many in our community who do not have enough food for their families.

A number of reasons for the shortage were identified, all related to insufficient resources, both money and time. Debbie Horwitz from PORCH explained that the families her organization serves are working families, but most have little money for food toward the end of the month after covering basic living expenses and depleting their SNAP dollars, which do not adequately cover the cost of food, especially healthy food choices. Kay Stegner from Orange Congregation in Missions (OCIM) noted that many clients come to the food banks when they have emergency needs, such as a loss of income or sudden medical bills. Kristin Lavergne from Interfaith Council added that even an unplanned expense, like replacing a tire, can drain away funds needed for food. Ashton Tippins observed that the food in weekend backpacks that children receive from TABLE needs to be easy to prepare because the parents often work multiple jobs and the children fix the food themselves or with the help of an older sibling.

A modest request leads to a vision of ending hunger
The leaders from the hunger-relief organizations asked if we’d allow them to collect food in our stores for the kids and families served by their programs. It was a simple, modest request. They each had a list of non-perishable foods that the families needed each month, and they hoped we’d sell them at discounted prices for our shoppers to purchase and donate. For us, it struck a chord far deeper. It reminded us that we’re a co-op—community owned, community supported—but that only part of our community had access to the healthy food we sell every day.


PORCH_carrotDisplay_smallIn January 2015, WSM formed the Community Food Partnerships through which we partner with the four hunger-relief organizations—PORCH, TABLE, IFC, and OCIM—to support their efforts to provide healthy food for those in need in our communities, particularly children, low-income families, and families in crisis. Inspired, we immediately ordered big drums to hold the packaged products we were sure our shoppers would donate. Then we remembered what our shoppers and owners buy, why they come to our markets—to buy fresh produce, dairy, eggs, and meat raised by farmers who meet our standards. We returned to our new food partners with an expanded vision—we would ask our shoppers and owners to donate the healthy foods that they were buying for their own families—fruits, vegetables, local eggs, our fresh breads, and packaged foods that were natural or organic.

The drums never made it to our stores. Instead we hosted a “Bags of Produce” campaign for PORCH’s families, a “Fill Me Up Backpacks” campaign for TABLE’s kids, and a “Bags of Apples” campaign for the families served by IFC’s and OCIM’s food pantries. A significant piece of each campaign was educating our shoppers about the issue of food insecurity in our community. Volunteers from the organizations and our front-end staff talked to shoppers about the critical need for healthy food for these families.

CFP_2016_results_infographicWe had no idea how responsive our shoppers would be to our call for donations. Our shoppers donated $84,000 in three 2-week campaigns in 2015. Many told us that it’s easy to forget about those in need and that they appreciated having a way to donate fresh foods. We repeated the PORCH and TABLE campaigns this spring with some doubt that we’d meet our goal of raising 20% more. Our doubts were unfounded—our shoppers donated almost 40% more with each campaign, making our total donations surpass $172,000. One hundred percent of the funds are used to purchase more food, so far more than 166,000 pounds of fresh healthy food.

Collaborating within different contexts
As our relationships with our community food partners grow, so does our understanding of the challenges they face—the most critical is having a sustainable, predictable flow of food for the families and kids in need. Ironically, when the organizations are able to increase the flow of food coming in, they lack adequate warehouse space for storing and sorting the non-perishable products, and they lack the refrigeration needed for storing the fresh foods and the refrigerated trucks needed for delivering them.

Food4PORCHsortingCollageWe’re discovering new ways to collaborate and draw upon our resources and experience as a food retailer with three stores and a warehouse. We have the sales volume to source the same high-quality food we sell at considerably lower cost than the organizations can, and we have a more efficient infrastructure for storing the food at optimal temperatures.

Soon after our first campaign, we discovered that PORCH sorted the produce for its deliveries in a garage. Despite some initial trepidation, they agreed to let us try hosting a produce sort at our Food House, where we could have the produce delivered directly from our vendors. We organized WSM volunteers to sort and pack the produce, which we then kept in a cooler until we delivered the boxes on pallets directly to their pickup site the next day. The process was so efficient that PORCH asked us to continue the produce sorts at our Food House.

When it comes to filling backpacks with healthy food, TABLE faces considerable restraints. The items must be kid-friendly and non-perishable, and weigh in aggregate less than 7.5 pounds. We’ve had hits and misses as we’ve helped TABLE add more healthy foods to the kids’ weekend backpack meals. The kids gave a thumbs-up to the containers of local blueberries and loaves of fresh-baked oat bread that we included in the backpacks last summer. But a couple of the items—the sunflower seed butter and bags of bulk granola—were a bit too “weird” for the kids.

Growing the impact of the partnership
After the first round of campaigns, we met again with the four organizations and asked about the impact of the campaigns and what the impact would be if we could do a little more each year, perhaps as much as 20%. For TABLE, it would mean adding 50 kids to its backpack meals. We knew the need was far greater—adding 50 kids each year would take decades to reach all 6,000 kids needing weekend meals. We also asked the groups to take a step back and tell us what they would really like to achieve in five years. It’s no coincidence that we heard the same response four times. Each organization is at or quickly approaching a ceiling on what it can do. To reach their five-year goals requires significant additional resources:

•    They all need walk-in refrigerators. The healthy foods they want to provide their clients—produce, eggs, dairy, meat—all require refrigeration, and often, immediate refrigeration is required for donated produce that is on the edge of its usefulness.
•    They need delivery vehicles—PORCH for a few days once a month, TABLE for picking up food and delivering backpacks multiple days every week.
•    The groups need warehouse space for storing non-perishables, more workspace for sorting and bagging, and office space where they can do administrative work.
•    All four are either looking for a new facility or (with PORCH) a first facility.

A pivotal point occurred late last year, when we learned that IFC faced a significant zoning hurdle in moving its community kitchen to a building it owned and intended to renovate. We asked IFC’s new executive director, Michael Reinke, what he thought could be achieved if we brought all the organizations, the community, and their resources together. He told us exactly what we had come to believe: “We could end hunger in Orange County.” It turns out that many in our community share the vision and the commitment to end hunger in Orange County.  We’ll have a blog post later this summer about a coalition that has formed to achieve this community goal.