After more than three decades, my career at The Wedge Community Co-op has finally come to an end. Several old friends have asked if leaving is bittersweet. I hope no one takes this the wrong way, but retiring now just feels sweet. I can leave with ease, knowing The Wedge has the best leadership team in place to move our co-op forward.
When I was hired as a “storekeeper” (grocery worker who also backed up cashiers on breaks) in 1981, no one thought a co-op job would grow into a career. I shopped at the tiny original store at 715 W. Franklin Ave., biking across town to The Wedge, the only place I knew that sold bulk coffee beans. How things have changed.
Change and growth have been the themes of The Wedge Community Co-op since its founding. Everyone was surprised that when the little store opened, it immediately saw sales of $10,000 every weekend—massive for the era and impressive for that size space in any era. We have continued to grow our business to become one of the most successful co-ops in the nation, but that didn’t happen without a change in cultural attitudes. From our present vantage point, it’s kind of funny to look back on the way we used to talk about food in the ’70s and see how far we’ve come in the decades since then:
- When the co-ops started, people who talked about food and health in the same sentence were called “health-food nuts.”
- Selling food out of bulk bins was not allowed under the health codes.
- The connections between farming methods and environmental problems were just starting to be recognized and had not yet broken into public consciousness.
- Consumers trusted the mainstream food industry to look after their health.
- The cooperative idea was not well understood. Back then, many members of the general public thought cooperatives = communists. On the other hand, leftists expressed suspicions when we turned a profit and thought paying staff enough to live on made us “corporate.”
- In many ways, the cooperative structure and idea is still poorly understood, thanks in part to the growth of wholesale “clubs” and also the presumption that co-ops are political organiza-tions or non-profits, rather than businesses owned by those they serve. So I guess as much as some things change, some things stay the same.
Of course, the co-op itself went through many changes of its own over nearly 40 years:
The original store (Wedge #1)
at 715 W. Franklin Ave.
Down with the old, up with the new!
Gardens of Eagan Greenhouse
The Wedge moved, five years after its founding in 1974, from the tiny space in a garden-level apartment to an old convenience store around the corner and across the street on Lyndale Avenue, on what is now part of our parking lot. Thirteen years later, we bought two lots next door to that store and built the first half of our current space. In 1997 we more than doubled that space, and added the bake house and a small parking lot in 2000.
In 1994, along with Mississippi Market Co-op, we founded Midwest Food Connection to bring lessons about food and farming to area school children. The program now employs four teachers with support from five co-ops.
In 1999, an offsite storage system we’d used for our Produce department bloomed into Co-op Partners Warehouse (CPW), delivering produce and perishables to other co-ops, restaurants and independent grocery stores. Today, CPW has more than tripled in size and hauls food to 350 stores and restaurants in six states.
In 2007, we began farming at Gardens of Eagan and also started the Organic Field School to educate and support the next generation of local, organic farmers. In 2012, we bought new land and greenhouses to expand our farming operation and offer even more organic produce direct from our farm to our store.
Change, growth and new services for our members and the communities that feed them—co-op growth is a good thing It means more co-op economy for more people. More food co-ops mean more checks for more local and regional organic, sustainable food producers; more land under organic cultivation; and less pollution running down the Mississippi River to the Gulf.
To push forward these values of sustainability and justice, we must grow our movement. More co-ops offer more people good food choices and important information. We cannot achieve the power we need to transform farming, food quality and food access unless we pull in more people. Investor-owned big grocery chains did not invent the organic natural food movement, though they now try hard to pretend they are the leaders. They did not go to the mat for the organic standards, to keep GMOs and metropolitan sewage sludge out of organic fields. It was co-ops and small independent natural food retailers across the country that created the food movement, decades ago. We must never forget that.
Thanks to all my co-workers, past and present, and all the members who stepped up over the decades to take leadership positions. Our co-op has a strong foundation on which to build and a proud history of leadership in the movement. I hope our members continue to support the growth and creativity of this leadership and staff, so we can continue to elevate sustainable, non-exploitative food production out of niche markets and into the mainstream, where it will be accessible to all. Because eating food that’s good for you and good for the planet should be an opportunity enjoyed by all, not just a privileged few. Please keep your eyes on the long view, my friends. That’s what brought us the success we’ve enjoyed thus far and will continue to bring us the success that more communities deserve.
See you in the produce aisle.