GreenStar at 40

By Dan Hoffman,
Council Member and Unofficial Co-op Historian

11-07-diane-ith-paradeWow! 40 years! That's four decades... two full generations... almost 15,000 days-in-the-life. And a lot of apples, if you've been with us all those days, trying to keep the doctors (and food profiteers) away.

Forty years ago, there was no internet, there were no cell phones, no personal computers, no Wegmans, Wal-Marts or any other big box stores in Ithaca. The Beatles had recently broken up, and gas cost about 40 cents a gallon. Thousands had just been arrested at a massive Mayday protest in Washington (including members of affinity groups from Ithaca), whose organizers promised, "if the government won't stop the war, we'll stop the government." The Republican mayor of Ithaca agreed with those who wanted to "bomb North Vietnam back into the Stone Age." The terms "natural" and "organic" were not ones normally applied to food, and those products weren't available in stores.

Times have changed since 1971, and so has the food co-op we now call GreenStar. While there are still quite a few "old-timers" involved, there are now many active members who are younger than the organization itself. Nevertheless, the core values that inspired and defined the original effort have survived; if anything, they seem even more pertinent and urgent, as the world we have known faces an ever-more-uncertain future.

At this notable juncture, it seems appropriate to take a look back at some of the highlights in GreenStar's rather illustrious history, to reflect on what's changed and what hasn't, and to celebrate a brash experiment created by folks who dreamed of changing the world, that has now matured without getting old, and that has in fact changed countless outlooks, diets and lives — and, at the least, our world.

The political, social and cultural upheaval of the late 1960s and early 1970s spawned a youthful counter-culture in places like Ithaca, part of a movement that rebelled against an "establishment" viewed as materialistic, greedy, unjust and un-cool. This movement's visionaries were dissatisfied with the conventional means of procuring necessities such as food, and wanted a do-it-ourselves alternative that bypassed supermarkets full of expensive, packaged, "plastic" food from distant sources, messages promoting consumption, and muzak devoid of the vitality of rock and roll.

In late 1970 and early 1971, an outfit known as the Ithaca Food Conspiracy had provided some natural foods (primarily grains and beans) through a radical bookstore on South Aurora Street (soon to be urban-renewed into oblivion) called "Shotaway" (after a line in a Rolling Stones song, and a widely held sense that The Revolution might be just a shot away). But tensions had developed in the relationship. Shotaway's highly political nature drew frequent hassles from local authorities; some within the Conspiracy objected to the portrayal of women in the Zap Comix carried by the bookstore; and dependence on a private business prevented the Food Conspiracy from asserting an autonomous identity.

In the spring of 1971, a proposal emerged for a new, independent organization — more cleverly named the Ithaca Real Food Co-op (IRFC). The hippies and activists (primarily college students) who created it envisioned a decentralized, grassroots system with little overhead – no store, no employees, and lots of donated labor. Members organized into neighborhood regions would place weekly orders for produce and biweekly orders for grains and other non-perishables. Every Saturday, before dawn, some members would drive to the nearest wholesale/farmers' market, in Syracuse, to buy natural food not available in Ithaca and bring it back to be divided. Everyone would share the work. A minimal five percent mark-up would ensure the lowest possible prices.

On the first order form, dated June 24, 1971, lettuce cost 18 cents a head, potatoes 6 cents per pound, muenster cheese 89 cents per pound, and peanut butter was 60 cents per pound. The newsletter (mimeographed on the back of once-used paper from the local Glad Day Press) boasted that prices were half those of Ithaca's Co-op Supermarket, an "old-wave" co-op from the 1930s then seen as unhip, too big, and a purveyor of non-union lettuce.

In the beginning, all of Greater Ithaca was divided into three regions: City, Collegetown and Country. The co-op idea caught fire, and by fall there were 15 regions (with names like Near-Varna, Strawberry Fields, and Trainwreck) and 1,000 (non-card-carrying) members. The Co-op grew so fast that complaints of unequal work and alienation began to appear in the newsletter: "Is it time for the co-op to divide into two to five smaller co-ops and get back to a size where everyone dug each other?"

The pre-order approach, common to "new wave" food co-ops of that era, required a complex web of interrelated responsibilities, subject to breakdown if someone forgot or blew off his or her part. For better and worse, the IRFC offered a direct involvement with food and neighbors absent from many Americans' experience; one that was as thrilling and magical as it could be frustrating.

Unlike fresh produce, grains and other non-perishable goods were purchased in wholesale quantities and needed to be stored between bi-weekly distributions. For years, this storage wandered from one member's basement to another, and even to drafty barns, until, in 1974, someone arranged for use of a room in the basement of the newly-created Greater Ithaca Activities Center. Then, the inevitable happened: a spaced-out member who had forgotten to pre-order garbanzo beans said, "Can I just buy some of the extra beans in that bag over there?" and — voila — the Grainstore was born. Pre-ordering of grains was discontinued within a month.

From that point, the Grainstore's non-perishable sales and the produce pre-ordering system developed along increasingly separate branches. Tension developed between those who favored more convenience for members, and those who wanted to avoid the overhead, capital needs and responsibilities of a store. Concern about the financial viability of the fledgling store led to the first membership fee ($2 a year) later in 1974, and helped to establish the practice of regular, monthly decision-making meetings, in 1976 (where any member who showed up could vote). The IRFC incorporated around this time, but declined to have a functioning board of directors. A proposal to "quit thinking in terms of a student lifestyle" and to hire a couple of paid workers led to a storm of protest and a Bylaws amendment prohibiting employees.

By 1979, the Grainstore had moved twice to larger facilities (first, on the corner of South Titus Avenue and South Albany Street, then to a site at the end of Fifth Street); it had purchased coolers to sell cheese and its sales were overtaking those of the pre-order branch. Overworked members of the volunteer collective that led the store again proposed having a couple of paid, part-time employees. After a bitter debate, the prohibition was repealed and two coordinators were hired. Some members left the Co-op in protest, but hours became more regular and sales increased steadily.

In 1980, a proposal (from yours truly) that the Grainstore officially embrace a policy of growth, including expansion of the product line and accepting non-working members, sparked huge meetings and widened the gulf between the store and the pre-order system. In 1981, the Grainstore responded to a financial slump by hiring its first full-time manager, Denny Hayes, who presided over a dramatic turn-around in the store's fortunes.

In 1982, the Grainstore Council was established, the first elected governing body in the Co-op's history. A few months later, the Council proposed that the IRFC divide into separate corporations for the store and the pre-order system. Both sides accepted the relatively amicable split in December 1982. In a stroke of linguistic brilliance, a member suggested a name for the new cooperative store — GreenStar — that evoked its past while hoisting it onto a green bandwagon that was still years away. (In the spirit of co-op democracy, much debate went into the pros and cons of the capitalized "S," before the name was approved.)

The IRFC relaxed back into its original pre-order-based style, but something had changed. Within a few years, the parent organization quietly withered away, even as its offspring prospered.

historic-cayuga-farm-greenstarTired of shivering in a converted garage next to a bar at the end of Fifth Street, GreenStar decided in 1983 to rent a larger and much more visible space — a former neighborhood grocery — on the corner of Cayuga and Farm Streets. Denny masterminded a human chain intended to carry some symbolic items from the old store to the new one; the 400 people who turned out on a cold March day had so much fun that they transferred virtually all the store's inventory, hand to hand, for eight blocks. Changes at the new store were just as dramatic, with more coolers, fresh produce, grain bins replacing trash can "dispensers," non-working members allowed, and a doubling of sales within two years.

A year and a half after its incorporation, GreenStar still had not adopted bylaws — a legal requirement. After long and spirited debate over whether to have a "strong" or "weak" board (in relation to the Membership Meeting), a compromise proposal was finally hammered out, which gave Council the leadership role, but reserved certain powers, including referendum and recall, to the Membership. A special Membership Meeting was called to vote on the proposal, but — after all that — only 16 people showed up, barely exceeding the quorum of 15. A two-thirds majority was required for passage. When the vote was finally called, 10 said yes, 5 said no, and the remaining member, earnest but clearly befuddled by it all and feeling very much on the spot, didn't know what to do. A quick-thinking attendee suggested she could abstain, which she gratefully did. A lawyer present at the meeting said the abstention could be "not counted," and GreenStar's first bylaws were deemed to have passed — by the slimmest of margins.

In its nine years at the Cayuga Street site, GreenStar expanded its product line (after heated debates over items like milk, corn chips, chocolate, coffee and packaged groceries; a well-intended compromise idea to carry chips, but only in bulk, lasted for about a week); created a management collective that grew to include eight staff with equalized salaries; started publishing its own monthly newsletter — GreenLeaf; and engaged in a soul-searching discussion of how to increase diversity in an alternative institution.

By 1992, the 2,400-square-foot store had sales of over $1 million/year and was bursting at the seams. Theoretical debates about expansion suddenly became starkly real on the night of January 6, 1992, when a fire, apparently started by a young teenager, destroyed the store. Stunned but determined to rebuild, 1,000 members showed up for an emotional meeting a few days later. A weekly "mini-market" of GreenStar vendors in the Henry St. John gym sustained members pining for the Co-op's camaraderie. Meeting weekly, the Council investigated new sites and polled the Membership; most favored a considerably larger store. In May, rental of the 10,000-square-foot former Payless supermarket in Ithaca's West-End won Membership approval by a 363-19 vote. At the request of the management collective, Council adopted a more conventional, hierarchical general manager (GM) system to operate the store. Art Godin was hired as the first GM (he served until resigning in 1998, when Patrice Jennings replaced him). And in another policy shift, the Co-op decided to welcome non-members as shoppers — shelf prices would reflect their higher charge, while members would receive a two percent discount (more if they contributed labor).

west-end-store-front

After a tremendous effort (and the hiring of a staff of 40), the new store opened eight months after The Fire, to huge crowds of curious shoppers. Sales grew steadily, but, with higher expenses, it was years before the Co-op was financially comfortable again. We barely had time to celebrate the new space before we learned, in December, that the State Department of Transportation had decided it must demolish GreenStar's new home to accommodate a widened Buffalo Street. After a year of suspenseful negotiation and lobbying, the State announced it would slice off the northern end of the building, instead of demolishing it, leaving the Co-op mostly unaffected (but putting an end to Clever Hans Bakery, our neighbor to the north).

In the late 1990s, shifts in the make-up of the Council resulted in a push for changes in governing style. Advocates for a new approach that was gaining support among food co-ops, called Policy Governance, argued that the Council was overly involved in operational matters better entrusted to professional staff, while others wanted to emphasize and build on the democratic and participatory nature of the Co-op. Philosophical divides became so sharp that in a couple of Council elections, there were competing slates of candidates and hard-fought campaigns. This debate continued for well over
 a decade.

Meanwhile, as the Co-op's sales pushed toward the $10 million mark, what had seemed like a massive space a few years before started to feel cramped, and consideration of expansion began anew. In 2004, the smaller, privately-owned Oasis Natural Foods store in the downtown DeWitt Mall faced financial peril, and sought out GreenStar as a purchaser. The Co-op's members voted to support the purchase, and GreenStar had its first "satellite." The new outlet struggled for a time, but over the past couple years has experienced dramatic growth at a rate surpassing the West-End store. While the Co-op is still looking for a larger main store, staff has been increasingly creative at finding ways to squeeze more use, and sales, out of an aging, limited facility.

Also in 2004, after years of discussion about how to balance support for workers with affordability and fiscal concerns, GreenStar became the largest local employer to commit to paying all of its employees at least a living wage.

In early 2005, dissatisfaction that had been simmering among the Co-op's workforce burst into the open, as almost a third of the staff brought grievances about workplace conditions and treatment to Council, and the issue quickly became a focus of a hotly contested Council election. Later that turbulent year, GM Patrice Jennings resigned, citing "irrevocable differences" with Council. Since then, Council/GM relations, as well as staff morale, appear to have improved significantly, but there has been a lack of stability in the GM position. For most of that time, the Co-op has had interim or short-term managerial leadership, in one form or another — for the past 16 months by Store Manager Brandon Kane. The latest GM search is expected to be concluded within the month, so stay tuned."

In 2006, the Co-op decided to rent part of a former beer warehouse, across the street from the West-End store, for office and storage use. Four years later, the Co-op negotiated the purchase of this property, which the Membership approved. The other, unoccupied half of the building was dubbed "The Space" and has hosted GreenStar parties and meetings, and other events. The ultimate use of this property — for a larger West-End store or for something else – is yet to be determined. What do you think?

In 2009, a long-standing Co-op goal was realized when an affiliate of GreenStar — called GreenStar Community Projects — received tax-exempt status. With the Co-op well occupied running successful grocery stores, this related and like-minded entity can focus on other world-changing activities, and is eligible to receive grants and tax-deductible donations. The affiliate has been working to promote local and regional food self-sufficiency and food justice, through involvement with the Fresh Fruits & Vegetables program at Beverly J. Martin Elementary School and, in conjunction with several other local organizations, the Ithaca Community Harvest project.

Late last year, Council voted to adopt the Policy Governance approach, "in a form that is determined by Council." That work continues, as I write this. Also last year, the Co-op broke new ground by establishing a popular new discount program — dubbed FLOWER — for low-income members, that has won praise from many quarters.

Since member referendums were authorized, in 1984, there have been 18 of them, half of which were approved (including those that gave the go-ahead to carrying meat and beer, and one that commits GreenStar to boycotting most goods from China). Since 1984, the Co-op's bylaws have been amended seven times, most recently last year, with another set of proposed changes expected to be put to a Membership vote this fall. At least five GreenStar Council members have gone on to election to Ithaca's City Council, and one is the current Mayor of Ithaca!

As GreenStar celebrates turning 40, we have over 7,500 member-owners and 170 employees, and we expect sales (at both stores combined) to hit $15 million this year. Looking ahead, there are plenty of challenges, as well as opportunities. Transitioning to a new governance system provides a chance to re-examine and commit to organizational values and goals (or "ends," in Policy Governance lingo). Could we face the competition if a national natural foods chain decides to come to Ithaca, and how would we handle it? How does GreenStar fit into a revitalized nationwide co-op movement? How can we leverage our financial success and loyal membership into expanding cooperative influence in the community and beyond?

Forty years ago, the Co-op's founders thought they had a better idea — meeting our needs through creative cooperation. The seeds they planted have been well-nourished, with love, dedication, hard work and the democratic ferment of contending ideas. Tested by fire and tears, they have taken root and grown with a vigor, sometimes in directions those idealistic pioneers probably could not have imagined. Our challenge as caretakers of this inspiring heritage is to honor and learn from our history, to be fully present in the here and now, and to be prepared to step boldly and together into a future that will need creativity and collaboration and clear-headedness more than ever before.

Happy Birthday, dear Co-op, and long may you run!

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