What’s the first thing you think of when you think of October? If your immediate first answer was “Halloween” (or candy, or costumes, or scary movies), that’s completely understandable—but did you know that October is, among other things, Co-op Month, Fair Trade Month, and Non-GMO Month? It’s true! Co-ops (and fair trade practices, and non-genetically engineered food) are so important that we celebrate them for a whole month—and the month that’s filled with Halloween, candy, and scary movies, no less!
Co-ops – or cooperatives – are owned by the people they serve, democratically controlled by their members (usually through a board of directors elected by their members), and designed to allow people to work together to achieve the same goals (that is, to cooperate). Besides stores like Harmony, there are electrical cooperatives, credit unions, insurance coops, agricultural coops, and more, all owned by the people who use the services they provide. These are businesses, not nonprofits, so there is a financial element; however, co-ops making enough profit are often able to give back to their members in various ways in proportion to their use of the co-op; in Harmony’s case, that comes in a variety of ways.
Our annual events are one way we like to give back to our members (and to our community at large). We have our Summer Family Festival, where we have a free-will-donation community meal (proceeds going to various local organizations like Bemidji Community Theater), games, face-painting, and a bouncy house; our Harvest Fair, introducing our growers and producers to the rest of our community and allowing them to share their delicious food creations; Shop Local Give Local, our equivalent of “Black Friday”, where we donate proceeds from that day’s sales to local charitable organizations (last year was Disabled American Veterans and Peacemaker Resources); our springtime Annual Owner Meeting, where we invite all our owners to get involved and help decide the direction of the store, and our yearly Grower’s Summit. Not only do all of these events let us show our appreciation to our owners, neighbors, shoppers, and families, but they help us fulfill our ends statements (the framework that helps us determine not just ‘how’, but ‘why’ we grow) and the “Seven Cooperative Principles” that guide all co-ops.
Our events are fun and some of the best parts of our year here, but they’re not the only things we do to give back to our community and to our owners. Co-operatives like Harmony often use dividends as a way of financially “giving back”; Harmony has been profitable enough that we have been able to send patronage dividends (a share proportionate to the amount each person has spent at the co-op in the past year) to all of our owners for the past two years. Any unclaimed dividends are donated to a community organization; this year, we were able to donate over four thousand dollars to Gitigaanike Foods Initiative; their community garden and farmer’s market work to decrease diet-related health issues, increase access to local healthy foods and develop a local foods economy for Red Lake.
So what does it mean to be an owner, anyway? Isn’t that just the same thing as membership? No, in fact—when you become part of Harmony Co-op, you are actually purchasing a share of stock and a real stake in the business! Becoming an owner isn’t just to take advantage of the cute orange signs and some discounts here and there (though you definitely get those things too!); you’re making an investment in a community owned business that is grounded in local commerce and sustainable sourcing. Co-ops are governed by the people they serve in the community they live in; decisions are made according to the International Cooperative Principles, not by what makes the most money. You may have seen bumper stickers bearing the slogan “I own a grocery store with my friends”; well, that’s exactly what joining the co-op means.
In a happy coincidence, October is also Fair Trade Month—since fair trade is such a vital part of cooperatives in general and Harmony in specific, it seems only “fair” to celebrate the two together. According to the Committee for the Promotion and Advancement of Cooperatives (COPAC) the main goals of Fair Trade Cooperatives are: to improve the livelihoods of producers; to promote development opportunities for disadvantaged producers, especially women and indigenous people, and to protect children from exploitation in the process; to protect human rights by promoting social justice, sound environmental practices and economic security; and to raise awareness among consumers. Fair Trade supports small farmers and encourages organic and sustainable farming practices, biodiversity, and conservation of natural resources.
It’s Non-GMO Month too—what do we mean by GMO, anyway? GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism, and it’s usually in the context of a plant, animal, virus or bacteria whose DNA has been changed or altered artificially; in this case, we’re usually talking about a crop (like corn or squash) or even a commercially-raised fish or chicken. Organic items are by definition non-GMO, though not all non-GMO items are necessarily organic. Many GMOs are specifically designed for resistance to industrial pesticides—pesticides which have harmful effects on other plants, groundwater, pollinators like bees and butterflies, and even people. Not only are non-GMO plants and animals better for us, they’re better for the planet!
We’re celebrating all month here at Harmony with some prize drawings and special giveaways—since it’s three of our favorite things at once! Everyone, owner or not, can enter to win a copy of “Grocery Story: The Promise of Food Co-ops in the Age of Grocery Giants” by Jon Steinman. Existing owners can enter to win a gift basket valued at $75 – and you can enter again every time you shop! Also, anyone who becomes a new owner during the month of October gets entered to win a gift basket valued at $75 and you get a brand-new Harmony Growing Community Together Klean Kanteen insulated mug. Besides all these great events, we’ve got our Co+op Explorers kids’ Halloween Party on October 26th from 10:30 a.m. - 12 p.m.; our “Oktopearfest” celebration this week, exploring the varieties of pears (and lots of other tasty things to eat alongside); and, as always, a full calendar of evening education classes. We can’t wait to celebrate with you!