by:David Lester, General Manager
“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” – Tim Cahill
My first two months at the Co-op have been busy ones and have taken me to some exciting places: Fayetteville, AR for an NCGA Central Corridor meeting of GMs; to Phoenix, AZ for a Kellogg Food & Community Gathering; and to Seattle, WA for a Consumer Cooperative Management Intensive workshop. When I reflect on these journeys, I think about the passionate and dedicated people I’ve met working to change the way people think about food.
In Fayetteville, Arkansas I had the opportunity to meet other General Managers from the Midwest like Lindy Bannister from the very successful Minneapolis co-op, The Wedge. Lindy has a vast knowledge of what the co-op business model can achieve, and I enjoyed the conversations we had about many ways a co-op can help provide a wide-range of goods and services to its community. One way The Wedge and other Twin Cities’ co-ops do this is through a cooperative educational program called Midwest Food Connection. They offer programs and resources that teach kids in the schools about eating locally and seasonally.
In Phoenix, Arizona I met with community leaders of all ages that gathered together for a two day conference to discuss ideas and form action plans to make healthy food available to everyone in their community. This was the first conference I had attended where teens, farmers, community leaders and business people came together to think collaboratively how to solve big problems like inner-city “food deserts” and greater access to healthy food for all. One of the highlights for me was when a Hopi woman from Arizona got up and talked about how her ancestors have farmed the desert for hundreds of years and that the desert to her people was a place of bounty. This was a big eye-opening experience for me and offered new perspectives and ideas about food and place.
In Seattle, Washington I attended a workshop that is part of a six month program to train new co-op General Managers. It is intense work focused on subjects like finances, working with a board and marketing to name a few. It was also nice to talk one on one with other managers about the challenges of managing a food co-op and discuss our hopes and dreams of the businesses we represent. On our final evening, we went as a group to a restaurant called Fare Start. Fare Start is a culinary job training and placement program for homeless and disadvantaged people living on the streets of Seattle. Local chefs train homeless individuals through a 16-week culinary program that prepares them to get jobs in the restaurant industry. The night we were there, Fare Start was graduating four students who talked about their own personal journey to get to this point in their lives. They were all excited about their next jobs in the restaurant business and beginning a new life. There were many napkins on the tables being used as tissues that evening, including my own.
Food transforms lives. And that’s what we are doing right here in Decorah, Iowa, in many different ways. The Kellogg Food & Fitness Initiative is connecting students in a six-county region to how food is grown and how they can participate in activities to promote healthier eating and healthier lifestyles for themselves, their teachers and their families. David Cavagnarro and The Pepperfield Project is teaching people of all ages how to improve their quality of lives through the whole process of growing, harvesting, cooking, and sharing of food. There are many stories of young families who have moved to this area with an idea that they could produce a quality product, sell it, and make a living. It seems to be working. I see more and more options of locally produced items in our local grocery stores and restaurants which can only benefit all of us who are in the business of selling food.
But the sweetest parts of this journey for me so far have been the days right here in Decorah, IA. I’ve lived and worked in Decorah for almost fourteen years, but I feel the last two months in my job at the Co-op have done more than anything else to welcome me to this community of people connected through food. It is an exciting and important journey to be on, and I hope to keep meeting new friends along the way.