This Cooperative Grocery Store Wants to Break the Diversity Mold | Civil Eats

This Cooperative Grocery Store Wants to Break the Diversity Mold

The Seward Community Co-op in Minneapolis built its new Friendship store as a reflection of the community where it’s located, and hired a majority of people of color.

Seward community co-op

At a few minutes before 8 a.m. on a weekday morning in Minneapolis, there’s a small crowd of people waiting for the front door of the Seward Community Co-op Friendship Store to slide open for the day. They stand under a sign that says, “Everyone Welcome,” and it seems true when Jerry Williams, a department manager, arrives to unlock the door. “Let me at ‘em!” he says and greets the waiting shoppers like old neighbors, even clasping hands with a few of them before they go inside.

Things haven’t always been so harmonious between the community and the cooperative grocery store. For 44 years, the Seward Co-op has been an anchor in the Seward neighborhood, where it operates a grocery store and, more recently, a restaurant. In 2013, the co-op announced it was going to spend $11.5 million to open a second grocery store about four miles southwest of Seward in the Bryant neighborhood.

At the time, the people who ran the co-op assumed the community would welcome the new store. There wasn’t a conventional grocery store within a 2-mile radius of the new site, much less one selling organic or fair trade food. The new location, called the Friendship Store, after the Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church that once occupied the space, would supply more than 80 new jobs, and 2,000 of the co-op’s existing member-owners already lived in Bryant.

But some community members worried that the new store would bring gentrification, and wouldn’t actually serve the people already living in the neighborhood. According to the 2014 census, Minneapolis has 39 percent people of color overall; 66 percent people of color live in the Bryant area, and 44 percent of people of color live in Seward.

“[The community] challenged Seward in a number of ways,” says Raynardo Williams, manager of the Friendship Store. They wanted to know: “How were people going to manage the food prices? If you’re bringing forth jobs in the area, are people in the community going to get those jobs?” As a historically African American community with a large Latino population, Williams says, the resounding request was: “When we walk in the store, we want to see people who look like us.”

Their concerns were not unfounded. Cooperative grocery stores primarily sell organic and fair trade products. According to Consumer Reports, prices for organics vary wildly: On average they cost 47 percent more than conventionally produced food, but that can rise to over 300 percent. Proponents say these prices reflect the true cost of food, an equation that includes the often invisible social, environmental, and health costs of conventional farming. Opponents counter that the price often outweighs any benefits organics may offer, as it can create a barrier to access for low-income folks.

For this reason, the Seward Co-op’s Friendship store can be seen as an attempt to bridge the gap between those working for sustainability and those working for food justice. And while cooperative grocery stores have not traditionally hired minorities, Williams believes that the store is not alone in trying to meld two different, but important, elements of today’s food movement. “The cooperative world is identifying the need to make a shift,” he says, “because, outside of providing access to great food, equitability and inclusivity are fundamental to the purpose of the co-op, and that means you should have a diverse and inclusive staff.”

Illuminating the Problem

Marjaan Sirdar, board chair of the Bryant Neighborhood Organization (BNO), says the first community meeting with Seward Co-op revealed that its leadership didn’t see the depth of its diversity challenges. “We asked them about staff diversity, and they proudly said they had 14 percent people of color,” Sirdar says. “That told us who we were dealing with—they were completely clueless about how institutionalized racism works. We let them know that was highly unacceptable.”

The BNO and the Central Area Development Organization (CANDO), another community-based group that has been vocal about the Friendship Store’s potential impact, are neighborhood improvement organizations. They both came out of Minneapolis’ 1990 to 2011 Neighborhood Revitalization Project, which enrolled communities in creating action plans to address things like transportation, green space, housing, and energy and water conservation.

In 2015, as the Friendship store was getting ready to open, leaders from CANDO drafted a 10-page Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) that, among other things, required Seward Co-op to double their needs-based discount to 20 percent, pay employees $15.00 an hour, and hire 70 percent people of color with a preference for folks from the neighborhood. A community council would oversee the agreement, and it could fine the co-op $1,000 a day for infractions.

Seward Co-op did not sign the agreement, arguing it wasn’t fiscally possible. “We represent 16,000 owners,” says Williams. “We have to make decisions that will put the organization in a place where it can continue for the next 40 years.” CANDO and BNO petitions to force Seward Co-op to sign the CBA failed to gain traction. Subsequently, the co-op hired a negotiator to help both sides come together to set common goals, and agreed to work with BNO to craft a Mutual Benefits Agreement outlining a partnership to address the needs of the community.

That agreement has been mutually put on hold, but Seward Co-op’s efforts to meet the community’s concerns have continued.

Change Requires an Investment of Resources

Ladonna Redmond

Williams says the co-op was actively addressing the Bryant community’s concerns even before the CBA was drafted. For example, the co-op increased access to its goods with a new need-based program called Nourish, in which members pay a reduced co-op ownership fee. Nourish members receive all the ownership benefits: a share of the co-op, voting rights in selecting the board of directors, and if the store has a successful year, a patronage refund.

It also includes a 10 percent everyday discount. “The Nourish program allows us to bring in pantry staples, canned beans and things of that nature, and charge the bare minimum for them,” says Williams. “We also offer classes, such as how to shop the co-op on a budget, and we’ve created recipes that allow you to feed a family of four on less than $10.” To date, 1,126 owners at both co-op locations have enrolled in Nourish.

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The co-op also committed to a hiring goal of 32 percent people of color by 2019, and to hiring people from the Bryant community. In order to do this, the co-op hired food justice advocate LaDonna Redmond as its community education coordinator. In the 1990s, Redmond had worked to bring organic produce to Chicago’s West Side, planting urban farms in vacant lots and starting farmers markets. She had also tried to open a community-owned grocery store, but the largely African American community—which had no exposure to the cooperative structure and simply wanted good food—had rejected the idea. Redmond knew something about Seward Co-op’s challenges.

Initially, her role at the co-op was to build relationships in the Bryant community, but she says it turned out that work was as internal as it was external. Redmond brought in Beth Zemsky, a local consultant specializing in organizational development to help the co-op unpack the internal processes and bias that had created its majority white staff—and change quickly.

Redmond credits co-op leadership with showing up to do the cultural competency work, which was often heated and humbling. “If I didn’t have a general manager who had undergone diversity training and understood exactly what we needed to do as a co-op and was willing to invest in the resources, we never would have been able to make these changes. No way,” she says.

Creating a Diverse Pool of Candidates

Community members were frustrated to hear that, when pressed on why it had hired so few people of color, the co-op answered it was just hiring from its pool of applicants. “I don’t buy that argument,” says Sirdar. “I’m not a business man, I’m a teacher, but I know the greatest need for jobs [in Minneapolis] is in Bryant and in the communities of color.” The Bryant neighborhood has an unemployment rate of 12 percent; Minneapolis, 9 percent.

Prior to the Friendship Store, the co-op relied heavily on word of mouth to fill positions. To get more people of color and people from the neighborhood into its pool of applicants, it held a job fair at a community center in Bryant. The job fair and the open positions were advertised with local African American and Latino radio and newspapers. The co-op also partnered with Bryant community organizations, such as HIRED, an employment agency that works with dislocated, low-income, welfare-transition and new immigrant workers. And it knocked on doors. “Communities of color require a conversation,” says Redmond. “You can’t just mail them a flyer and think they’re going to go, ‘Oh, this is wonderful.’ You have to get out and meet people.”

In preparation for the job fair, the co-op added questions about cultural competency to its interview process and rewrote job descriptions to emphasize essential skills over experience. For example, a person who worked in an auto shop may not come in speaking the language of the cooperative. “But you don’t need that to bag groceries,” Redmond says. “You need to be attentive to detail, able to lift 50 pounds, and have great customer service skills. We can teach you the difference between gluten free and organic.”

More than 400 people attended job fair and 100 of them were hired. “It was a wildly successful day,” says Redmond. The majority of the new employees were for the Friendship Store, and when it opened, the staff was over 60 percent people of color—primarily from the neighborhood. Seward Co-op employees earn a minimum of $12.82, the living wage in Minneapolis. All full-time positions come with benefits, and about 75 percent of the staff of the Friendship Store is full time. The co-op says that, factoring in benefits, staff “earn at least $15 per hour.”

The co-op also changed its onboarding process to be more inclusive. In the past, new staff learned a co-op history that began with a photo of 10 white men looking very serious at the turn of the last century. Now they get a broader introduction that includes all cooperative movements, including African American mutual aid and benevolence societies. Redmond says, “Being able to infuse our training with the cultural understanding we’re learning helps people find their place at Seward Co-op and feel pride in what they’re doing.”

Can the Larger Co-op Landscape Work Toward Diversity?

As Williams suggested, the push to hire people of color isn’t unique to Seward Co-op. According to a spokesman for National Co-op Grocers, a business services cooperative representing 200 food co-ops, diversity initiatives are a national focus.

“If it isn’t a trend, co-ops are in trouble,” says Leila Wolfrum, general manager of Durham Co-op in North Carolina. “Becoming a network of stores that is welcoming and geared toward a broad population is essential for co-ops going into the future. It embodies all the values co-ops have always had, we’re just at the front of the wave of implementing co-op values with diversity and equity in mind.”

The Durham Co-op has been open for a year and a half and employs 45 people, 32 of whom identify as people of color. “I think it’s important to recognize that diversity is not something we’re doing solely for the health of the community,” says Wolfrum. “It’s for the health of store.”

No End to the Challenges

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“I love working in my neighborhood,” says Kiara Madison-Cook, who staffs the deli at the Friendship Store. She likes the work and has learned a lot—she’s currently getting into cheeses. But she says the most gratifying part of her job is the interaction with her neighbors: “They come over and say, ‘I’ve never been to a co-op before,’ or ‘I would never come to a place like this.’ Those are the people who make me happy to be here.”

Since the Friendship Store opened, it has sold 2,111 new ownerships to people in the Bryant zip code. Currently, the Friendship Store staff is 56 percent people of color and 55 percent people from the neighborhood. As a larger organization, the Seward Co-op is also ahead of its initial goal, with 36 percent people of color on staff.

Madison-Cooke says the “Everyone Welcome” sign resonates with the community when they come into the store and see people like them working. Yet she worries that could change. “Without [another] job fair that explicitly says, ‘We want people of color and people from the neighborhood,’ it might go back to being just people who want jobs.”

Sirdar has the same concern. He says he’s heard that the staff is already “getting more white.” “They need to institutionalize their retention of Black and Brown staff, otherwise it’s almost like they did it to save face.” He’d like to see Seward Co-op commit to maintain 70 percent people of color on staff, so that the store more closely represents the makeup of the Bryant community.

According to Williams, many of the original job fair hires still work at the store, which is significant because high staff turnover is the normal in retail stores. “People want a clear path forward,” Williams says, “so we have to do a good job of communicating training opportunities, and we have to make sure they see staff of color in leadership positions.”

After the Friendship Store opened, Redmond’s title changed to “diversity and community engagement manager,” a leadership role created to shepherd the day-to-day work of diversity and a demonstration of the co-op’s commitment to do it. “I can name about 50 projects right now, areas where we need to grow,” she says. “That’s the thing we’re learning at the Seward Co-op. The work is always the work, it’s never going to be, ‘Oh, we’ve arrived, and we are done.”

And yet she’s optimistic about the co-op’s work and what it represents for the food justice movement. “This project gives me hope. People of color can build and own cooperative grocery stores. It’s going to happen.”

Photos courtesy of the Seward Community Co-op.


Susan Pagani is a freelance writer and editor in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in Civil Eats, East Bay Express, Heavy Table, Sierra Magazine, Los Angeles Review of Books, Sotheby's Artful Living and the San Antonio Express News, where she was food editor. She has also published nonfiction essays in Switchback and three collections, Literary Orphans, Minnesota Lunch, and The Secret Atlas of North Coast Food. She received her MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Read more >

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  1. christine
    I would suggest making the new location a "members only coop" that replaces 80% of PAID hires with local volunteer member shoppers. The Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, NY has been doing this successfully since the mid 1970s and, today, has over 16,000 members that volunteer an average of 2.5 hours a month and basically run every dept. of the store.they get deeply discounted fresh, local, organic food. Employees are the largest overhead in retail, replacing a paid workforce with a volunteer member workforce keeps prices down and keeps the coop as diverse as the community it resides. It works. The fact that there are already 2000 existing coop members in the Bryant neighborhood is a real benefit to kicking off this model. Good luck!
  2. Connie Moore
    Well written. I am a co-op member but still don't see my reflection in the Friendship Store employees. I do sometimes though in the shoppers. I live around the corner on 38th and Portland. I am the one using a walker to get there. I am also legally blind so if I don't see you say hi. I most often wear dark glasses but I can hear. ???? I have advocated for living wages for people with disabilities all my adult life. Remember being a person with a disability is the minority any of us can "join" at any time. Don't get me wrong I love my co-op????
  3. Bex
    Can you do a follow up on this story? What's the store like in 2019?

    Thanks. Awesome reporting.

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