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More than a store: glut cooperative's operation by consensus' can be intense, but ensures members' long-term commitment.

Glut Cooperative, a worker-owned food cooperative in Mt. Rainier, Md., is located within a food desert and near several other food deserts in Prince George's County, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. It can thus be viewed as a food oasis in a desert of need.

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A food desert is defined by USDA as "an urban neighborhood or a rural town without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options."

A place of plenty The founders of the business gave the cooperative the name "Glut" to signify that "here at this location there is a glut of food. Look no further. We have plenty."

While "food desert" has only recently become a commonly understood term, bringing "cheap, wholesome food into the city" for poor and lower income people has been a central objective of Glut Cooperative for more than 45 years.

When the cooperative opened in 1969, its early operations involved serving as a supply source for a series of local buying clubs. Its mission was to bring greater food security to its member-families. Demand was high from the start, and the cooperative opened its doors to the general public in 1971, after just two years of operation.

Cooperative offerings

The cooperative offers a broad range of fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, seeds, cheeses, coffee, herbs and spices, as well as health and beauty products, food supplements, vitamins and sundries. The large herb selection brings in shoppers from as far away as Virginia.

In supplying the store, every effort is made to stock products that are organic, locally sourced and/or come from other cooperatives. Gross sales of the store are approximately $2 million annually.

Governance and workers

Governance and management of the co-op is facilitated with bi-monthly member meetings. These member-only sessions are held every other Monday throughout the year. Decisionmaking is made through consensus, with each member having one vote. There are currently 11 members. Chairing of the meetings rotates through the membership.

All members are free to bring up whatever issue they please, with the expectation that it will be discussed, debated and, if necessary, voted upon. Everything from worker tardiness to customer complaints, to worker conflicts, to general management of the store, are handled during these biweekly sessions.

During particularly heated conversations, the acting chair may step in to bring order to the discussion. "It is not a perfect system, but everyone has an equal opportunity to be heard," Martin says.

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"I once had a big conflict with another worker," she recalls. So they tried to work things out at a co-op meeting. "Usually our meetings are 30 minutes to an hour. This one lasted about two hours. We pretty much just talked it out. There is nowhere else to go here--no HR department to hide behind. You just have to work things out."

The frequency of the meetings allows the members to direct and manage the organization without having to hire an over-arching manager. This style of management and governance--i.e., bi-weekly meetings and decisionmaking by consensus--allows for intense, direct involvement of members and creates long-term commitment to the organization.

Labor is provided both by member-workers and customer-volunteers, who earn store credits for their work. However, shoppers are not required to be members nor to participate in the "volunteer for credit" program. Worker-volunteers may apply for membership after gaining experience in the store and successfully navigating through the member interview process. This is intended to determine their commitment, reliability and knowledge of the workings of the organization.

Local and regional food system

The store is structured to be a retail point for other cooperatives and/or for local/regional food businesses. Seasonal produce is sourced from Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative, a cooperative of farmers in nearby Maryland and Pennsylvania (see related article, page 18), among others.

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Vegan and gluten-free baked goods are purchased from the Maryland Food Collective on the University of Maryland campus. Bulk spices come from Frontier Cooperative, and while not geographically close, it is a cooperative specializing in spice assembly and distribution from Norway, Iowa.

Bulk tofu and organic soy products and various bulk nut butters are purchased (respectively) from Twin Oaks Community, a cooperative community in Virginia, and East Wind, a cooperative community in Missouri. Several other products are purchased from local, family-owned businesses.

Sustainability

Over its long history of operation, the actions of the Glut Cooperative have anticipated several of the more recent narratives of economic, social and environmental sustainability-what some refer to as the "three-legged stool of sustainability." (For more on this concept, visit the websites of the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, Madison, Wis., and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University.)

Glut seeks to address economic viability needs by providing low-cost, high-quality food to local residents where few, if any, other alternatives exist (due to food-desert and food-security problems). It does so in a manner that builds community with local residents and with a systems approach that links local and regional producers to Glut as a point of final retail sales.

Great care is also taken to ensure products come from systems that consider the importance of preserving air, water and soil quality while making little, if any, use of non-renewable resources.

In the words of one Glut Cooperative customer: "When, from the future, we look back and explain how we got this far and how we did so well, not as individuals but as a community, [we] will find that Glut was more than a store; it was a historically significant idea."

By Thomas W. Gray and Shauntrice Martin

USDA Photos by Lance Cheung

Editor's note: Gray is a rural sociologist with USDA's Cooperative Programs; Martin is a worker-owner of Glut Cooperative. The authors welcome feedback on this article: thomas.gray@usda.gov and/or shaun.glut@gmail.com.
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Author:Gray, Thomas W.; Martin, Shauntrice
Publication:Rural Cooperatives
Geographic Code:1U5MD
Date:Mar 1, 2015
Words:1005
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