Internship Final Report
Interning With the Sweet Onion: Think Globally, Eat Locally!
I have been involved with the Sweet Onion Co-op since my freshman year, when it was still just an idea and a bunch of people putting together an amateur Business Plan in order to solicit money from ASWC. Almost two years later, we’re now an actual small, non-profit business with a loyal member base, key community contacts, and an office. It’s been amazing to see the growth and knowledge gained over that time, and I’ve felt privileged to be a part of it. That’s why I prioritized the Co-op as my top internship choice: I felt it would give me an opportunity to become a more committed volunteer and to work toward a specific goal for the business. As the Co-op’s intern this semester, I feel more involved with the project than ever before, and in a position where, out of necessity, I have the opportunity to learn about its inner workings on an even deeper level. Whereas previously the projects I worked on sometimes felt trivial or marginal, I now feel as though I am working on a project that has great value to the community and also to my personal awareness of the environmental issues tied up with food production, distribution, and consumption. The internship has been very meaningful to me.
I entered into the internship with a rather vague idea of what to
expect, as the description mentioned only that the intern would be “contacting
local farmers.” After meeting with my internship sponsor, Alice Bagley,
the options broadened even further: I was told that, as a Co-op veteran who
knew the ins and outs of the system, I could essentially design my own internship
according to what was most needed or where I had special interest. This sounded
great, although a little daunting. (In the end, designing my own internship
did turn out to be a little bit too much work and take a bit longer to get going
that I would liked it to; see my “Recommendations”
section.) After attending several meetings and talking to Matt Eppelsheimer,
our start-up coordinator and president, to find out more about what the Co-op
needed in an intern, I decided to focus on an issue of great interest to me
and of potential use for the Co-op: local products.
I have long thought that the Co-op needed to put a bigger emphasis on local foods rather than organics or fair trade, as the positive sociological and ecological benefits of buying local often outweigh the benefits of organics or fair trade. For example, considerable energy resources are used in the packaging, processing, and transportation of food—most of them fossil fuels contributing to global warming. The US’s “foodshed” (a concept akin to that of a watershed) currently encompasses the globe. Large corporate farms use methods which are damaging to soil and water resources. In the less developed nations where much of the US’s imported foods are grown, environmental and worker regulations are lax, and sociological and ecological consequences are often worse. Buying local, in contrast, can do much to enhance the local economy and community, as well as cut down on the energy and resources necessary to take the food from farm to table. Concentrating on local foods often enhances the consumer’s “sense of place” and can help them gain knowledge and awareness about agricultural or environmental issues in their community. Meeting the people you buy food from is a rewarding experience! Even though local foods may not always be 100% certified organic, they generally come from smaller farms which, by their smaller nature, use less destructive practices. Since one of the Co-op’s main missions is to reach out to the Walla Walla community (something that we’ve already accomplished admirably), I think one of the best ways we can do that is by creating connections and partnerships with local food producers. My ultimate vision and plan for the end of the semester was to create a brochure or directory of local producers for our members to use, so that they can develop a sort of “brand loyalty” to the local food system and be excited about buying products from those same suppliers when we have a storefront and are capable of stocking lots of local foods. I also hoped to come up with a detailed “contact plan” for getting ready to meet with potential suppliers in the spring.
Many products in our catalog are billed as “natural foods” but use ingredients that were probably produced and packaged in an unsustainable manner in a faraway factory. I’d like to see a larger range of actually sustainable products—and that means local products—available through the Co-op. Of course, it is somewhat complicated, as we currently have only a bi-monthly Buying Club and not an actual storefront yet, so any partnerships I created would have to work around that. And simply asking farmers if they’d like to supply us six months in the future is not the same as physically buying their produce and selling it now. So, one of the main challenges in the internship was finding ways to create a good network of contacts in the local food system which we can actually use six months hence when we have a storefront, so that people don’t have to start all over again.
There are other challenges associated with working for a small, volunteer-run non-profit business. Learning about these was part of my internship goals—what is it like to work for a grassroots environmental organization? You can’t really get more grassroots than the Co-op, as I found out. One challenge is simply the lack of structural hierarchy—I’m never quite sure who I’m supposed to be reporting things to or running things by. This lack of structure is actually intentional and was “built in” to the way that the Co-op is currently run: we attempt to avoid oligarchy whenever possible. While admirable, this can be annoying at times. No one spoon-feeds you if you volunteer for the Co-op, even if you beg for it—you have to be extremely self-directed. Because everyone is trying to accomplish extremely large goals on the few hours of free time they have per week, things happen very slowly, so persistence and perseverance are necessary qualities. Resources are also scant, as we are currently not breaking even. Communication and commitment between and among volunteers can be lacking sometimes. Personal motivation can be hard to find, since no one is breathing down your neck to make you finish projects. I have had many frustrations with these aspects of the Co-op before, but by now feel competent in dealing with them and working around them. My personal challenges have included getting over a subtle fear of networking—a valuable skill, but one which I’m not very good at.
Interning for the Co-op required a fairly large time commitment, but sometimes I felt like even with all the time I spent on things, I wasn’t actually getting anywhere. Besides attending weekly meetings, I spent about three hours a week in the Office doing office tasks or research for my specific projects. I also e-mailed and called my co-workers often to discuss things, as well as doing a lot of e-mail advertising on our listserv. Most of my internship, it turns out, was contingent on being a good and timely communicator.
I began simply by doing research on local food systems, which was easy because I was also researching the topic for a sociology class. To obtain a list of local producers to contact, I had to rely mostly on tips from my fellow Co-op volunteers, but I also had a resource in the research papers written by Prof. Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s class “Whitman in the Global Food System” two years ago. In fact these papers, which contained valuable information about Walla Walla valley agriculture and the food system in general, often used the Co-op as a model and contained excellent suggestions for future internship projects (see “Recommendations”).
By halfway through the semester, I had had two significant successes, although they’d been a little slow in coming. Through my efforts, we have partnered with Thundering Hooves Pasture-Finished Meats, so that our members can buy their products through our Buying Club for delivery, and with Cop Copi Farms (from LaGrande, OR) to purchase some of their produce for sale. Only two partnerships so far may not seem like a lot, but it took quite a few e-mails and meetings and phone calls to get those going. Additionally, I tirelessly advertised both our partnerships to all the various Co-op listservs, and posted information about them on the Co-op’s web site. Every couple of weeks, even now that my internship has mostly ended, I am in contact with someone from Thundering Hooves or Cop Copi to update them on what we need and when to deliver it.
We have had a very positive response from our members about these two partnerships. Hopefully, as the Co-op moves further toward true grocery store status, rather than just a buying club, the existing partnerships can be expanded upon and new ones can be created. It was difficult for me to try to instigate partnerships simply based on the knowledge that we are not set up yet to sell large volumes of perishable goods, and are in fact not technically permitted to sell ANY goods out of our office. Many producers would not be interested until they knew for certain we could reliably move a certain amount of their goods each week.
With this in mind, when an opportunity presented itself to switch focus in the middle of the semester, I embraced it. Lina Menard, one of the Co-op’s key volunteers and our secretary, had suggested that we needed to make a new version of the current Buying Club catalog—a sort of “Mini-Catalog.” The reason for this was that the current catalog we order from is enormous, with hundreds of thousands of products. It is difficult to sift through if you don’t know what you’re looking for, and too much choice can, as Lina pointed out, often be overwhelming. In order to get more, and larger orders on a consistent basis, to support the Buying Club and keep the Co-op solvent, we needed to do it Trader Joe-style: offer our members only a few choices in every category, choices which we had handpicked as the best of their kind. I certainly agree that the current catalog is unwieldy, but what attracted me to the Mini-Catalog project was not that. I have long thought that our current catalog is not really fully in line with the Co-op’s stated mission, vision, and values (visit www.sweetonioncoop.com for an explanation of each). As I stated earlier, many of the products are simply regular old unsustainable food with too much packaging and an “eco-veneer” to make them attractive to allegedly environmentally-conscious consumers. Thus, I decided to initiate the creation of a Mini-Catalog which would offer ONLY products in line with the Co-op’s values, because what else should we even sell?
This project will be an ongoing and lengthy one, lasting far beyond my internship. It will be of great use to the Co-op when they become a true storefront and it is time to pick an inventory, because all the product research will already have been completed. The idea is to research each product and company in the UNFI catalog and find out everything we could about them (we came up with a lengthy set of categories and questions to ask). Once we have all of this information, we can choose the “best” few products in each category to offer in our Mini-Catalog, and later, in the store. I began meeting with other volunteers to determine a system of how to do product research, which we quickly set up. I also began to recruit volunteers to help do product research.
A question which came up immediately in this process was: What does the Co-op value most in its products? Our mission statement is kind of vague. There was no explicit purchasing policy or ranking of what types of certifications or eco-labels were valued above others. Was organic more important than local or regional? If so, what type of organic? Oregon Tilth? USDA? What about nutrition, sustainable agriculture practices, cruelty-free husbandry, and socially responsible businesses? I brought this up at a meeting and it was agreed that, as the Co-op moves toward store status, it is very important that we resolve this. Therefore, after a board meeting debating where our priorities lay, I became the head of an ad hoc committee to write a Purchasing Policy. With the help of Alice Bagley, I researched many types of eco-labels and certifications and wrote a Purchasing Policy, which our Board of Directors voted upon and accepted. I have attached the Policy at the end of this report. I feel that initiating the creation of the Policy, and actually creating it, was my most significant internship accomplishment.
I recommend that the Co-op create a more detailed, specific internship for their future interns, who may not have as much experience as I did going into the project. Based off of my internship, there are a few project suggestions. The Mini-Catalog in particular is an area which could use at least two interns. The interns could recruit people to do product research, set up committees, and do extensive project research themselves. Additionally, after product research is finished, the interns can select, based on the Purchasing Policy, the two or three choices they feel would be best suited to the Mini-Catalog. Layout and formatting of the Catalog itself will be a whole other project. I envision the Catalog as containing a section in the front entitled “Guide to Consumer Responsibility,” where details about each of the different eco-labels and certifications will be explained for members, and why we chose them (I certainly didn’t know about many of these going into my internship, so it’s a good bet many members don’t either). The Food Politics papers would be an excellent resource for this, as would several pertinent internet sites, such as www.ecolabels.com. I think it is extremely important that we educate our members about what we are offering them and what they are buying. Interns could make Product Information cards for all our products, including the few we are currently peddling out of the Office. These would include information such as miles the food traveled, where it came from, how it was produced, etc. Another project is, of course, to continue contacting local producers to see if they would be interested in supplying us in the future. This project may be more pertinent next semester as we move toward a storefront. I have attached a Contact Plan with a list of resources for future interns. On a different front, there are a wide range of other options for Co-op interns—a Marketing Intern, for example, or one who specifically worked on the Buying Club. Volunteers are thin on the ground, so interns are a great way for the Co-op to take advantage of free, enthusiastic student labor. However, to really take advantage of this, the Co-op will have to have more specific projects in mind to offer.
I think that the Sweet Onion Co-op has great value to the Walla Walla community because of the way it tries to help circumvent the social facts that often prevent people from purchasing healthy, sustainably raised foods, and working for the Co-op has great value to me because in talking with local producers I am gaining a sense of place and of my own value to the community. I certainly recommend this internship to future interns, but would caution them that it is necessary to be someone who can work without supervision and structure, and who is potentially willing to spend a lot of time formulating their own concrete project. Interns should be prepared to work on a wide variety of issues and spend a lot of time in meetings in order to gain the best overall perspective on the Co-op. They should also be prepared to communicate as often as possible with supervisors. However, for anyone who is interested in the sociology or politics of food systems and agriculture, this internship is extremely instructive. In the end, I had a productive, informative, and fun semester working for the Co-op.