By Ken Stern 

From the editor: The Food Co-op's next 50 years


August 16, 2023

Some readers, surely, were among the over 500 people crowding Mount Vernon’s Riverwalk Plaza last Wednesday, raffle tickets in hand, as Skagit Valley Food Co-op General Manager Tony White called out winner after winner, giving away prizes donated by local businesses and the Co-op in recognition of the 13,000 members who make the Co-op the amazing success it is today.

Residents from Samish Island and Sedro-Woolley came and others from perhaps as far away as Vancouver, B.C., and Seattle. It may be possible and is certainly true that pound for pound and per capita this is the most successful as well as the best food co-op not only west of the Cascades but statewide.

Many member-owners not only want to shop there and enjoy their shopping but are committed to the co-op in a way that must be the envy of every corporate grocery chain in the country. Yes, this co-op has hundreds of local vendor accounts and the produce on hand was growing in fields people passed on the way to the store, but that is only part of the story.

Ask the leadership, staff and board members. Heck, strike up a conversation with neighbors who, like other members, own a share of the business. Start with asking “why do you shop there” or “what do like about it” and then get to that unique question: “Why do you belong?”

That is the kicker. Community. Shared decision making. When White, former general manager Todd Wood and board members past and present spoke, they did not get too far before the equally beautiful twin sister of community, democracy starts getting extolled. Imagine reflecting back on debates leading to decisions to stock – or not – coffee and white sugar. Is that silly white privilege navel gazing? Or, as Francis Ambrose said, “It was really about democracy. It is a way for a lot of us to learn new things about each other.”

The success was not even the decision to include coffee and sugar on the shelves. It was about the process. That is what democracy is: a process. Democracy – and the people participating are creating and living it – is sharing values and beliefs. We choose to live life together or we don’t.

Part of that result can be incredible financial success. That is how the Skagit Valley Food Co-op went from zero dollars in sales to projecting $25 million at the end of the year. That is the same thing as Organic Valley. In 1987 that co-op had zero dollars in revenue. In 2022 the 1,600 farmer member-owners had sales of $1.2 billion. That is billion with a B.

Food Co-op Board President Tom Theisen last week said that $50 million for the 100th year anniversary is a good goal. Yes, that will be an economic success. Consider the positive ripple effects of its presence in the community the next 50 years.

The Co-op started 2023 making a $100,000 donation to Viva Farms, the Skagit Valley farm incubator organization. That is a commitment in people and farming futures as well as securing inventory for the store’s shelves. That is a commitment to the environment and all our futures, whether we are member-owners or never shop at the store.

Commitment. Community. Both have the same root meaning: “to unite, connect, combine; to bring together.”

The root question is what is the process with which you want to create the future?

— Ken Stern


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