By Matthew McConnell, Moscow Food Co-op Bulk Buyer
Recently, Frontier Co-op hosted an event for some of their co-op members from around the country, inviting them to spend a couple days at the birthplace and home of Frontier, located in Norway, Iowa. (Yes, I said Iowa. What do mean, “Where's Iowa?' It's 'Iowa,' a state. You really don't know? No, not Ohio! Iowa! Whatever). The Bulk Buyer (me) from the Moscow Food Co-op received one such invitation and I almost talked myself out of the trip by answering Joseph Melior's question of, “Do you want to go?” with “I'm not ready!” But he knew I was only joking (I wasn't) and was excited that not only would it be an opportunity for me to meet others from co-ops around the country and increase my personal awareness around bulk foods, but that I'd bring some of that learning back to Moscow. The timing of the event also happened to coincide with the roughly one year I had been working at our Co-op.
I was part of a group of 35, representing co-ops from across the United States. During our visit, we met some of the people behind Frontier and saw their business offices, warehouses, and working conditions; heard their history; helped celebrate their 40th anniversary; attended numerous break-out sessions, learning about topics ranging from vanilla growing to tea tasting to ingredient sourcing; were given tours of their different buildings; attended their Annual Meeting; ate wonderful meals; and met many of their employees. Briefly, I'm going to highlight some key points that I was impressed with in regard to Frontier’s overall health.
Frontier, like many who are involved in conscious business and consuming, have worked with farmers all over the world to build schools, dig wells, and to help with crop cultivation and sustainability. They have helped their farmers gain organic and fair trade certification and have assisted with the creation of farmer's co-ops in parts of the world where collective power and support make a real difference in their quality of life.
Frontier is not only focused on the farmers throughout the world that supply them with the ingredients and food, but on what's happening around them locally. Once a wide expanse of prairie grass and flowers, Iowa's landscape has become an expanse of farmland due to its rich soil, which is because of the original expanse of prairie grass and flowers. Frontier has restored thirty acres to its native prairie, a labor-intensive project which has created a rich and diverse makeup of many different plants, flowers, shrubs, and mosquitos. We walked on a trail that cut through swaths of grasses that were as tall as I am, some taller. We walked past gardens that were dedicated to deceased Frontier employees, past the children's garden, and past the old barns that were saved from demolition years ago, now restored and used for various gatherings including their Annual Meeting and a place to eat lunch in the summer, away from the mosquitos that swarm just outside waiting to attack.
What most impressed me was that they had a child care facility on-site, certified by the state. It had been six years since a new child care provider had been hired and the lead person in charge told me that she's now changing diapers of kids whose parents had once been under her care. Parents can visit their children throughout the day if needed and many choose to eat lunch with them. It's also subsidized by Frontier, with care costing $2.50-$4 daily.
We were in attendance for Frontier's Annual Meeting, held at a winery overlooking the rolling hills of eastern Iowa, so often ignored when lamenting its flatness. We filed through the door being held open for us by a smiling man and as I walked past him, he asked if I was enjoying my visit. I expressed articulately to him how much I was in fact enjoying my time, by repeated use of the word 'cool.' I reached my hand out to shake his, asking his name. It was Tony, the CEO of Frontier.
Later that evening, as our group was preparing to leave the winery, I walked over to the table where Tony was seated with People Who Were Dressed Very Nicely, making me silently wish that I had washed my pants sometime during the week. As I approached, Tony saw me coming and stood up. Smiling, he took a step in my direction and this time reached his hand toward mine, shaking it. He thanked me for being there and I wished Frontier a Happy 40th Anniversary. He sat back down and I went to find a laundromat.
It's been more than fifteen years since I first joined a food co-op. It was also around this time that I began steering all my conversations to food, and from there, easily segueing into the environment, worker conditions around the world, personal health and animal rights, or why I had stopped drinking coffee and why you may want to consider doing the same. I talked local, organic, fair trade and sustainable at people until they had little choice but to stick pencils in their ears with the hope that they'd no longer be able to hear me, yet I also did not have much understanding of the challenges faced in observing those standards, or the real role that cooperatives play in that effort.
In my year of working at our Co-op, I have learned a lot about those responsibilities and challenges and realize that during my visit with Frontier, I was viewing them through a lens made more discriminating from having that experience with our Co-op. Frontier Co-op, like ours, is not immune to the rough edges that are a part of any business, collective, community or cooperative – to the rough edges that are a part of any relationship. There will always be a difference of opinions, mistakes made and lessons learned, but what makes the cooperative model unique is the intention behind the effort that's given to developing sustainable relationships.
Cooperatives are borne from a belief that relationships matter; relationships including ourselves and others, our food and environment, the ideals we profess and the actions we take. The history is there for anyone to read about, and I'm glad to be involved in my own little way.
In the days following my return to work, I was surprised when someone asked me, “Where ya been? Haven't seen you in a while.”
Wait, you noticed I was gone?
I heard it a second time and thought again, “You noticed too?” I heard it a third time and a fourth, from people who, in their trips up and down the Co-op aisles, had shared with me stories of their homes and lives, private and personal, people with whom I have shared parts of my life with. Connections created through talk of the weather that turned to where we've previously lived that became talk of why we left those places, of what pulled us or chased us. While they shopped and I filled bins, we managed to share bits of ourselves and to connect in such a way that made my absence noticed.
I noticed some absences too, on that first Saturday back. From the mother with her girls in the early morning, to the family of five that come in a little later, to the colorful man who comes in by himself, to the girl with the Warsan Shire tattoo on her arm and to the long-time Co-op member who I mistakenly told we were out of local eggs a few weeks back, I look forward to being able to say to you, “Where ya been? Haven't seen you in awhile.”