Sunday, December 9, 2012

Affordability, Viability and Purpose of WSM's Local Food Operation

This coming Wednesday, December 12, 2012, in the Carrboro Century Center, beginning at 6.15pm, there will be an open WSM owners' discussion on Goal 2 of WSM's preferred 2020 Vision.

WSM have also set up a Facebook Page, where owners and workers can make comment on the four Goals. I have already made comment on Goal 3 (at about #15), and posted some general commentary about this whole process on my WSM co-op blog.

Today, I posted a comment on the 2020 Vision Facebook Page on Goal 2, the one to be discussed this Wednesday. Again (funny thing life, innit?), it can be found at about #15. It is along the theme of the Subject Head above:

"The ambition of Goal 2 of WSM’s 2020 Vision is, in essence, to increase the sales of local and sustainable food, primarily through our own WSM outlets, and generally local food which has been processed in our own Food House in Hillsborough.

My comments below are set in the context of two themes which the WSM Board have stressed in their presentation of these Goals and in their commentary at the Goal 1 open session of owners:

I) Clear goals must be established, with clear processes also set in place to monitor the achievement of those goals.

II) The 2020 Vision process should be owner-driven, with the talents of our some 18,000 owners being tapped through the concept of CoOp-Sourcing.

My comments (some of these may overlap with Goal 1; but I was unable to attend the owners’ meeting on Goal 1 at such short notice):


The product of our local food operation is not cheap. I would invite WSM constantly to keep in mind the need for our co-op to be aware that one of our missions should be to ensure that local and sustainable food is within the reach of all in our communities, including those who work at WSM.


WSM can only “produce more local food ourselves” if our Food House can handle it.

I know from my own personal experience that we have the hardest-working, most dedicated and most inspired workers in all of the departments of our Food House. But they are not the ones who set the policy that governs the structure and processes of our Food House.

Before we can set new goals for WSM’s local food operation, it is necessary first to determine if those goals set for, during and after the last expansion, in 2007/2008, which resulted in the creation of the Food House, have been met.

At that time, we, in the outlets, were told that the Food House would result in better conditions for our production work-mates; more local food; better quality food; a greater range of food; better and more consistent packaging and presentation; and less need for food preparation in our outlet kitchens.

I would suggest that any working group established to oversee Goal 2, which working groups have been suggested by both WSM management and our Board, should CoOp-Source our owners to find folks with the skills to undertake, with the co-operation of the operations staff and management, a full financial and narrative audit of the Food House, to ascertain if the goals of the last expansion, as they relate to WSM’s local food operation, have been met.

Are there lessons to be learned from the manner in which the Food House operation was put together? Is the Food House operation more efficient and cost-effective than the food production effort that existed before? Is the Food House operation fully commercial and competitive with other food production efforts? We are regularly told that WSM currently produces 25% of the food which it sells. But that means nothing unless we also know what % of food sold before the Food House was built was produced by WSM.

We, in the outlets, were promised that our relationship with the Food House would be commercial, with the outlets treating the Food House as they would any other vendor. Is that the case?

We were told that the food provided to us would be competitively priced. Is that the case?

Are there areas which could be improved? If so, how?

Once we have an historical context, and are fully satisfied that the Food House is operating now in the most effective, commercial and competitive manner possible, in terms of the needs of its end users, then we should address what specific goals we need to be setting our Food House folks, and whether they feel and we feel those goals can be met, and how. And, in the process, establish systems by which owners can monitor the achievement of those goals.


This may seem a rather curious item. And may seem even more so as I progress.

For some, there is something of a veil of secrecy surrounding some of the machinations of our co-op. If the Goals of WSM’s 2020 Vision are to be successful, it is necessary for all of us to be open and transparent with each other. It is for that reason I welcome the 2020 Vision Facebook Page, allowing all of us to communicate freely.

In considering Goal 2, I think it important for owners to be clear in their minds whether WSM and its local food operation primarily serves the convenience of its consumers and workers or the needs, not least the seasonal fluctuations, of its producers.

I’m going to stick my neck out (and what I say is almost in direct contravention of point (2) above) and say that it took me about six years to work out that WSM’s local food operation does not exist to meet the demands of WSM’s end-users: its outlets, its workers and its consumers.

We are an operation, funded by consumers and workers, that was established to ensure the long-term viability of local farmers and food producers, by offering sustainable, successful and professional outlets, with a supporting food commissary.

I may not appreciate the rather undemocratic manner in which this operation was created over some 20 years. But, I do avidly support the concept.

However, Goal 2 is not going to work if we are not all in the same boat, all of us pulling in the same direction.

If there are those in our outlets who demand that the product of the Food House should meet their requirements, not the harvesting schedule of our local farmers (for example), then they need to be heard.

If there are consumers who want to say, um, I want the food I want, not the food that farmers can provide, then they need to be listened to.

Only when we have clear and established purpose, can we then proceed with setting targets under Goal 2.


Frankly, I have no idea what is meant by the phrase ‘We will mobilize community resources to achieve ambitious goals for local and sustainable food sales.’

If this means investing more of the money that WSM generates, then I trust that owners will only proceed if and when they have the active backing of the workers of WSM, since it is the workers who generate that extra money with the sweat of their brow.

I remain ambivalent about setting new ‘ambitious’ goals until we have achieved all of the ambitious goals we set for our local food production effort when we established the Food House.

If ‘community resources’ means more loans, then I will adamantly protest, until we have paid off all of the loans which were entertained when building the Food House - still some $6 million outstanding.

Of course, a natural extension of reviewing the goals we set for the Food House, along with considering targets under Goal 2, may be the creation of a formal business plan for the Food House.

Such a process, leading, as it should, to the entrenchment of the Food House as a sustainable, commercial and competitive enterprise within WSM, would lend itself to a situation where the Food House, of itself, could become an attractive vehicle for investment from sources other than WSM and its banks, and for sales from outlets other than WSM, both of which would, in turn, support the efforts of the committed folks within the Food House to improve and expand their operations and achieve the ambitions of Goal 2, specifically as they relate to WSM.

In the meantime, in this post on my WSM co-op blog, I have a tiny snip at some of the ... er .. non-local food we supply in WSM and the consequences.

You can find other less snippy, generally more helpful suggestions about how we can be a better co-op and a stronger business in other posts on the remainder of this blog ... "