In person interviews and site visit September 2011, Lee-Ann Chevrette
* Not-for-profit cooperative food store
* Emerged from community-university initiative
* Focused on northern communities and social justice
* Sell only products from ‘the land or the hand’ with origins in northern Ontario
* Approaching operational financial self-sufficiency through organizational and individual memberships
The True North Community Cooperative is a not-for-profit co-op that was initiated by Joseph LeBlanc, Heidi Zettle, Bryan Dowkes and some students at Lakehead University in January 2009. These individuals identified a need to increase availability and accessibility to local food in Thunder Bay and Northern Ontario as a whole. While they were working as students for the Food Security Research Network, they wrote a paper for a TD Go Green Challenge, in which they outlined their vision for the Northern Ontario Food Production and Distribution Network. The Food Security Research Network employed one summer work-study position to help move the study forward, and provided in-kind support throughout the early stages of the development of the initiative. By the end of summer in 2009 a founding board was identified. The Co-op was incorporated in November 2009.
The co-op’s governance structure is based on democratic control and is rooted in cooperative principles, autonomy being the most important. The board can have up to 11 members. Special advisers to the board exist, who can be past board members or general members. The role of the special advisors to the board is to lend specific expertise, while not having to commit to full participation on the board. Board members come from different backgrounds and affiliations, and act as representatives of the co-op, not of their affiliated organizations (employers).
The geographic scope of the cooperative is the region of northern Ontario defined by FEDNOR: Muskoka/Mattawa River, all of northern Ontario to Québec, Manitoba and the Nunavut borders.
The co-op has three different levels of membership: individual, producer and commercial/organizational members. Currently, the co-op has 298 individual members, 51 producer members, and 8 commercial/organizational members. Products carried by the co-op are not limited to food and can include anything that is produced in northern Ontario by their producer members (i.e. anything from their lands or their hands). Some of the products they sell include, vegetables, fruits, berries, cheeses, forest foods, meats, eggs, chips, flour, rolled oats, herbal teas, honey, herbs, mushrooms, preserves, wool, knitting, skin care products, photography, jewelry, pottery, clothing and toys. They do have policies that restrict them from carrying anything from outside of the region of Northern Ontario and from selling products from non-member producers. They have exempted dairy and poultry products from these restrictions as heavy regulation in these industries limit their availability.
True North Community Co-op is unique in many ways. One thing that makes the coop unique is its focus on Northern Ontario, including remote communities. There is a strong focus on social justice issues relating to local food accessibility; the co-op board’s motivations and work are not exclusively focused on the storefront, their focus is on the community of Northern Ontario collectively.
The co-op is also unique in its funding structure, its working Board of Directors, its regional approach to ‘local’ food, the fact that it is community-based, and a broad focus on not only selling and consuming local food, but also education, community development, and social justice. The co-op seeks to provide a fair and stable market for local producers, to improve access for consumers to healthy, local food, to connect producers and consumers, to cluster and share resources with other businesses, and to facilitate the equitable distribution of food to underserviced, remote Northern Ontario communities.
There is a ribbon of intense agricultural production in the southern part of the Northern Ontario region, and very little agricultural production in the northern portion of the region. Traditionally, there has not been a strong relationship between these two sub-regions. The co-op aims to build a bridge to facilitate the distribution of this food to the more northern regions, where the need for fresh healthy food is high, and the current capacity to grow it is low. The co-op is building the capacity to enable this, and to build these markets so that both sub-regions benefit. They also facilitate relationship building between and among producing members so that they may expand their markets.
Their 8-member working/volunteer board of directors takes on the majority of the responsibilities for the co-op’s operations. There are a number of sub-committees, “task-groups”, all of which share the diverse operational responsibilities of the co-op. These task-groups include both board members and individuals from the general membership. They have a diverse age range of board members which allows for diverse perspectives, knowledge and sponsored ability sharing, and the building of resilience. During the summer of 2011 they were able to hire a summer student for 12 weeks, after receiving funding support through Canada Summer Jobs. They have recently hired another student for a 12 hour per week position; her wage will be funded by the co-op.
The co-op runs out of the storefront location in downtown Thunder Bay. Their infrastructure includes a standup fridge, a standup freezer, and a chest freezer. They share their storefront with another local business called The Green House, with whom they also share some of the other physical infrastructure, including the computer and a point-of-sale system.
The co-op has an operating budget of about $10,000 per year. Most of the financial resources are derived through the storefront sales and membership sales. They charge 30% above the product costs set by the producers; much of this funds the operations of the co-op. They have deliberately chosen to grow naturally rather than to have funding that extends them beyond their natural capacity to grow (i.e. they have not sought operational funding). The goal is to remain self-sufficient in terms of funding.
The co-op is very strategic in terms of its partnerships. All partners are membership-based. They currently have eight commercial/organizational members: Nishnawbe Aski Nation, The Green House, Bay Credit Union, Bonobos Foods, Growing Season Juice Collective, Peetabeck Health Centre, Gargoyles, and the Bean Fiend. They are also associated with Ontario Co-operative Association, and the Paro Center for Women’s Enterprise.
Community resources/assets we would like to be connected to
One of the co-op’s most critical needs is for someone to undertake a research project that would explore the current food distribution networks in Northern Ontario. There is a strong need to understand the structure of these networks as they exist currently. There are numerous existing channels for food distribution to all of the communities in Northern Ontario; however, no one has committed to identifying and exploring these. It is also necessary to identify opportunities to access, share, and work within these existing structures to distribute and increase access to healthy, locally and regionally produced foods. Moreover, such a project may also identify additional and perhaps alternative food distribution channels. There are over 80,000 individuals living in Ontario’s remote northern communities, which are fundamentally dependent on these food channels.
Some of the co-op’s constraints involve the lack of operational funding. As the co-op grows there is a need to hire more permanent staff and they are in the process of building capacity to support this growth.
Because of the co-op’s desire to grow naturally and sustainably, it takes time to create and establish the diverse initiatives they would like to explore. They are not able to take a lot of risks. They will only take steps forward if there is a solid foundation to stand on.
There have been numerous successes in the year and a half that the co-op has been operating. One of the greatest successes is the opening of a storefront location which serves to increase the availability and accessibility of local foods to individuals living in and around Thunder Bay. The co-op is open six days a week, and provides a centralized location for local producers to sell their products and for local consumers to access them.
Another success is a tremendous community support and interest that the cooperative has received. To date, there are 51 producer members, 298 individual members, and 8 commercial/organizational members. These memberships are from across the region and not just around Thunder Bay, demonstrating substantial regional support for the initiative.
Connections have been made between the co-op and local businesses and organizations, and they try to work co-operatively to develop relationships that are mutually beneficial. For example the co-op works with two other local businesses to share shipping costs for certain products they source from producers in the region.
Another success is that they have been able to maintain the autonomy of the organization. They have been very conscious of developing a structure that allows them to stand on their own two feet, and to not depend on external influences. Rather, they have sought to focus on meeting the identified needs in the region.
This year the co-op started a multi-producer co-operative community supported agriculture (CCSA) initiative, which includes nine local producer members and 43 individual members (i.e. they provide 43 local food boxes/shares weekly over the course of 12 weeks). Twenty six shares are split among seven remote communities, while the remaining 17 were sold within the city of Thunder Bay.
The co-op is an active participant in the Nutrition North Program; of 33 national suppliers they are the only non-profit organization who was accepted into the Program, and the only one focused on local food. They receive a subsidy for delivering healthy foods to remote northern Ontario communities. Through the CCSA program, they send food regularly to Fort Albany, Kashechewan, Attawapiskat, Peawanuck, Fort Severn, Muskrat Dam, and Bearskin Lake First Nations.
The co-op also has a federated co-op in Fort Albany. True North Community Co-operative Fort Albany has become a catalyst for food security initiatives in the remote First Nation. Members had been undertaking numerous food initiatives for approximately four years independently. Since pulling together under the co-operative structure individuals have begun undertaking collective projects and moving forward long-held dreams, turning them into a reality. With support from the board of directors, producer members, and organizational members individuals in Fort Albany have begun community and household gardens, a poultry project, good food boxes, placed individual orders for food, and added regionally produced goods to the list of products available through their alternative markets. The autonomy of members in Fort Albany is of the utmost importance. Eventually these members will incorporate an autonomous co-operative of their own and TNCC has and will continue to lend their knowledge and resources towards this end goal.
Over the course of the development of the co-op, a number of individuals met with another co-op in Northern Ontario that had started just a couple of years prior to the opening of True North Community Co-op. They were able to gather information about the challenges and successes of the other co-op and to implement different strategies to avoid similar mistakes. They have made a conscious effort to grow the co-op naturally and sustainably and to build a strong foundation for its success. They have developed relationships with local businesses to sustain themselves; through these mutually beneficial relationships, they share capacity, overhead, infrastructure, and staffing. It is a very collaborative initiative.
The initiative is community-based and seeks to help redefine the vision of community. The initiative seeks to reflect the interconnected reality between human players and the natural systems which sustain us. All of the components within this system are interrelated and lasts and initiative of this nature must reflect an awareness of this. This requires a systems approach. We must take into consideration all of the factors that affects our food system.
This is a model that could be used in other communities to increase availability and access to local foods, and to connect local producers and consumers. This co-operative creates a structure that allows producers to set their own price for their products; this supports the viability of local food production and ensures that neither producers nor consumers are exploited. They focus on true value pricing, which means that prices are consistent regardless of where the product is sold.
They are a regional co-op so their storefront is only one component of their operations. Most sales occur outside of the store, primarily through the CCSA, and through the Nutrition North Program, where food is shipped to several remote Northern Ontario communities.
The commitment to the initiative is based on community economic development, social justice and food sovereignty. The co-op encourages active community engagement and volunteerism. It demonstrates that one need not be a primary producer to be an active part of the local food system, and that consumers need to be valued as much as farmers. They believe that all individuals working towards building a strong local food system should be valued.
The co-op has a website: www.truenorthcoop.ca (under construction), a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/truenorthcommunitycooperative), a quarterly newsletter, pamphlets, and membership cards. They also produce an Annual Report which is available to the public.