Why the Salem Food Co-op failed

Ten Lessons from a founding member (steering committee and founding board member 2010 – 2014)

This piece results from reflection on several factors that ultimately contributed to the demise of the Salem Food Co-op (SFC) project. I wrote it first and foremost for myself, to help articulate and clarify my pathway forward. I share it in hopes that it will help others in their community development work, by aiding in the identification and avoidance of red flags to fight self-sabotaging project failure and individuals’ unwitting participation in such self-sabotaging processes, ultimately to better respect and render effective time and energy spent toward building a better community.


1) First, the food co-op started with limited outreach to white godless middle class liberals. Note that I don’t use the phrase “white godless middle class liberals” as a pejorative. Rather, it is only a very limited demographic group (one that includes me). We might more accurately substitute “secular” for “godless,” as, the initial outreach did not include churches, nor did it include minority or marginalized populations and related local organizations (SKCE, NAACP, SLF, etc).

Such a narrow initial frame for the project compounded later problems. Project leaders assumed that whoever showed up as a result was “the community” and thus (yet again) erased people of color, ESL speakers, and others from the possibility of engagement and participation unless it was completely on the terms of the narrow white, middle class godless liberal frame. I fit that same narrow demographic group (which is probably why I became a founding member), and even I found the space to be unnecessarily conservative and restrictive — to the point of being claustrophobic, with constant subtle and passive-aggressive social norming to separate outliers from the “in-group.”

See Julie Guthman’s “Unbearable Whiteness of the Alternative Food Movement” for more on this topic. De facto discrimination and segregation can look more like passivity than active prejudice. For example, by putting all outreach materials in English only, by reaching out to primarily-white institutions and groups, this projects a coded message to community members who don’t fit that demographic that, “this is another white people project.” It also projects a coded message to white supremacist community members and institutions that the status quo supports their prejudice, which intensifies racism, etc in the community as a result.

2) Second, the core founding group (which later became part of the steering committee and the founding board) started and stuck with a very narrow, naive and inflexible idea of what a food co-op was. They were stuck in the romanticization of the food cooperative movement of the 70s, and wanted to transplant that through time and space into the contemporary Salem economy. They did not do research into the full breadth of cooperative possibilities, and thus could not imagine — let alone communicate — anything beyond, “I want a member-owned version of LifeSource” [the local privately-owned friendly, well-staffed and well-managed “natural foods” store] to the community, which sounded redundant to most folks. LifeSource already effectively fills that economic niche, and does a solid job at it.

In contrast, the founding group did not care to learn what other problems, needs and thus opportunities existed in the community around food issues. They did group work to move the project forward, but their participation in part served to retain control of this narrow vision and prevent broadening of possibilities. Some even said they would leave if the group even considered other possibilities than what they wanted (a brick and mortar granola store). The presence of such manipulative and threatening behavior in the early group formation itself is a huge red flag that I ignored — especially because many of these people stayed on-board!

3) Third, the board did not listen to or follow the advice of experts — such as the Food Cooperative Development Initiative and the NW Cooperative Development Center and local seasoned business owners and the local SBDC. The few cooperative projects that withstand the test of time treat the strategic planning, research and outreach process seriously, whereas key members of the SFC board just dismissed the process as redundant or even threatening to their vision. They payed lip-service to these fantastic (and freely-available) expert resources, but did not actually want to follow through with the planning process, for example, treating the business planning process as a mere “formality.” As a steering committee and board, we did not take the time to understand what the actual community (and all its participants) really wanted or needed, and where, when and how a co-op project might meet those needs, let alone whether it could at all. Other participants did not seem able to see through their narrow blinders in interpreting the information offered (so everything became about building a “brick and mortar” store).

Starting a co-op is a lot like building an intentional community, and it takes a lot of time and energy building and solidifying the (often-invisible) foundations for success. Most successful co-ops (and intentional communities) don’t start operations until several (often 5-7) years of intensive development and planning work, which includes lots of research and evolution and even complete reboots and changes in direction.

4) Fourth, we prematurely started and expanded operations (vs intensive planning and development, which the above factors short-circuited). Unwilling to give the development process the time, energy and respect it deserved, the founding members jumped at the opportunity to just “start doing it,” nevermind that we did not yet have a clear vision of what “it” meant, and that most of Salem did not share the specific implementation of the larger vision that certain members of the board insisted on. This lead to SFC naively taking over a private bulk food buying club (a very different operation than — albeit potentially part of — a cooperative effort), whose founding leaders wanted to step back. Seeing this only as an opportunity (rather than a more complex situation that included significant threats to the project), we just “started doing it” without having a clear understanding of what it is we were doing, or how we were doing it, or what the risks were. The project soon found itself in a vicious operational cycle of paying off its increasing liabilities via operations that reaffirmed the existence of those liabilities. Planning and development work all but stalled.

5) Fifth, we imposed ourselves on the community. Unwilling and unable to research and understand the full scope and potential of this project, we tried to shoehorn a narrow and exclusive vision into the Salem economy, ignoring available economic niches while trying to establish ourselves in highly competitive, well-developed ones. When we took over the buying club, we destroyed it. The buying club emerged to fill a need. Rather than letting it continue or fade on its own terms, we tried to co-opt its membership for our purposes. The SFC board forced the change from a buying club to a co-op, raised the prices, made the process more complicated, and then said it was all “for the best” without even first developing a relationship with the club’s members. It resembled a hostile takeover. Lo and behold, member participation dropped off sharply in a few buying cycles, leaving SFC with a bad public reputation (from people who might otherwise have been our core supporters and membership, no less!) and an operational burden. Such tactics only work with virtual monopolies — and besides, is that really what SFC was going for?

6) Sixth, we exploited participants. By prematurely jumping into operations, we struggled to perform even basic operational tasks. Management each order cycle was a frantic, stressful mess. There weren’t enough volunteers to help, in part because of an over-reliance on volunteers. Board members vetoed any serious consideration of hiring paid staff (at any level), even when we finally had the budget for it. Similarly, board members mired in endless operational obligations every order cycle began questioning the motives and commitment of the few board members trying to stay focused on overall project management, planning, research and development in order to pressure them to “help out more,” as if the development even of operational policies and procedures and critical path planning wasn’t “helping out.” This created more internal board tension. We misused the resources available to us, then ironically wondered why we didn’t have “enough.” The project started to become a black hole for time and energy. Overwhelmed board members began co-opting the time of friends and family.  Cue the burnout!

7) Seventh, we got sucked into pettiness. Rather than fostering partnerships and mutual development with other local and artisan food projects, we saw other local markets and producers as competitors for the same small demographic group of people who buy their food from local producers and markets (or even a small subsection of that demographic group). The local and artisan food movements compete mostly against the industrial food system. Through our passive contribution to and participation in petty infighting instead of active leadership, we undermined our ability to compete and intensified the competition over a small sliver of the overall potential market. This is another reason why SFC struggled financially, and the stress and desperation of the volunteers began to show. In the end, the food co-op even placed blame on the community with a backhanded comment about them not “embracing this opportunity.”

8) Eighth, the board participated in chauvinistic magical thinking. We believed for the most part that if we just started offering a few local products from local farmers and mostly bulk options (creating a market penetration redundant to LifeSource and existing farmer’s markets) that people would just “flock” to the co-op and ask to become members. We thought that the co-op would boom without years of careful planning and outreach and niche research and strategy. Without a carefully-crafted vision that was well-communicated to — let alone shared by — the community. We just assumed that the vision was shared, the need for it “obvious,” and ultimately that the community wanted or needed whatever SFC felt they wanted or needed. We did not even listen to ourselves when “the brick and mortar board members” said they really just wanted “a community space” — something very different than a food co-op (although some overlap can exist). We had no concern for developing management and operating policies and practices and procedures, expecting those to “just arise” out of the process. We also thought that a new software system or website would solve many of these problems and more.

9) Ninth, the project evolved from being passively classist and racist into being actively-discriminatory. Several people who became central founding members of the board even openly expressed insecure animosity toward religion and churches at board meetings, as if open animosity toward and exclusion of religious participation was necessary to maintain the co-op project as a secular space. They even did this when new potential board members showed up, as if to “vet” such potential members. The fundamental fear and insecurity behind such practices also led toward a patronizing and negative attitude toward the Salem community they ostensibly sought to serve.  I believe that much of this happened because those of us who disagreed nonetheless chose to remain silent while others publicly spouted strong negative opinions.

10) Tenth, we did not accept accountability or feedback. We failed to recognize all the myriad red flags and question whether we were doing anything wrong, or whether we had gotten our priorities mixed up. Desperate and disorganized operational concerns for current order cycles pervaded and co-opted board planning and retreat spaces, increasing internal tension. When the project inevitably shattered and broke, the remaining members were so burnt out that we could not even consider a reboot or a change in strategy or direction. We lacked flexibility and adaptability in pursing the vision and mission we claimed to represent. Whatever we did was “right” and “correct” and if it didn’t work, then it wasn’t because we did things wrong or poorly, but because “Salem didn’t step up to this opportunity.” We blamed others for our mistakes — even, ironically, the very people we claimed to be “serving,” e.g., for not “buying enough.”

This isn’t to say that the board did everything wrong, or that there weren’t other external mitigating factors. There were. But those factors always exist — the difference between success and failure falls with whether and how people acknowledge and address those factors, or whether they ignore or dismiss them. Although we can never guarantee success, we can guarantee failure by sabotaging ourselves (regardless of the reason or motives for doing so). While the above list is not exhaustive, it does unfortunately comprise a solid recipe for failure.

I had a lot of hope for this project, which is why I began participation early in the steering committee and became a founding board member. Participation in this project ultimate became very stressful and time consuming, which I shrugged off as an inherent aspect of project work. But I refused to ignore many red flags, perhaps due to the sunk cost fallacy (I’ve already committed countless hours, I can’t back out now!). The other red flags I only addressed as isolated issues rather than seeing them as part of a larger pattern of attitudes and behaviors sabotaging the integrity of the project. It’s always difficult to evaluate such circumstances when you are immersed in them, especially when you really want things to go well and you’ve already invested hundreds and hundreds of hours.

Ultimately, I learned a lot from my participation. In addition to the lessons above, I conducted a lot of research, and developed considerable expertise on cooperative structures (even compiling a resource used by NWCDC). Still, I wish I had the clarity of mind to step back earlier than I did. My sin was not in failing to see red flags, but failing to connect them together. My own wishful thinking kept me captive to the belief that I could make a difference if I just tried harder, put in a few more hours, etc. Instead, my continued participation only further enabled the pathological process and delayed the inevitable demise of the project.

Cooperatives are interesting structures. They aim for the best, but can ironically bring out the worst. I still believe they have a lot of potential for community building and economic empowerment, but only in recognizing and addressing two large challenges of our society:

  1. The fact that our legal and economic and cultural systems often exhibit open hostility toward — let alone near-complete lack of support for — such projects, and
  2. We all bring baggage into cooperative project spaces — both individual and institutional (e.g., colonizing processes and participation in imperialist structures of the larger society).

If the participants can’t acknowledge and deal with that baggage, then it sabotages the project, which can even provide a platform for and amplify the impact of pathological process and behavior. This baggage looks like both structural and internalized oppression: classism, racism, sexism, dogma (including secular dogma!), etc. In the very least, such baggage, left unaddressed, impedes our ability to overcome or navigate the first challenge (lack of support from a hostile establishment). If this becomes people’s experience with cooperatives, then they might actually start seeing cooperatives as a “bad thing,” which is unfair both to the cooperative movement and to them inasmuch as cooperatives, when well-executed, can be fantastic forces of community building and economic empowerment.

I’m not the only one soured on cooperatives.  Austrian agroforestry expert Sepp Holzer wonders out loud of farmers emprisoned in cooperative contracts that hold the market hostage, force financial losses, and prevent both farm and market innovation and evolution in his book, Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture:

How long will it take for farmers to free themselves of the shackles of cooperatives and make their way to independence?

Cooperatives are not inherently good or revolutionary, but are socioeconomic tools.  Like any tool they can be used to exploit others.  Or, ideally, we can use them to create the beautiful human economy of the sort that luminaries such as EF Schumacher envisioned.

I still think there’s room (even need and demand) for an entire network of cooperatives in the Salem economy that truly help people meet currently-unmet or poorly-met needs: childcare, urban food production, affordable housing, food distribution (esp. to food deserts), time banking. But such projects need to start with a fundamentally-different ethic than the status quo: open-minded, inclusive, exploratory, responsive, accountable. Until then I have promised myself the integrity to abstain from participation in projects that exhibit any (especially several) of the above red flags, because doing so ultimately wastes time and energy, enables more oppressive pathology, and harms the participants and the larger community.


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