A Democratic Evening: Last Night’s Food Coop General Meeting

parkslopefoodcoopfrontI’ve been a member of the Park Slope Food Coop since 1999, that’s 15 years this November. Some people hate the coop, some people mock it, but I will tell you that it is an incredible institution, a piece of bedrock that joins disparate communities across NYC because, well, the produce and the prices are incredible.

This comes at a cost. Every member is required to work a shift every four weeks. A shift’s length varies a little depending on the duty, but the standard is two hours and forty five minutes. This can be a problem for those with regular work hours and kids, so I certainly don’t blame anyone for not being a member. But because every member is responsible for a work shift, being a member really brings with it a sense of community. We’re all equally invested in the institution.

That community is large and democratic. There is paid staff, but the coop’s policies are the result of a governance system that allows any member to make proposals and shepherd them to a vote of the members at the monthly general meeting. Despite my enthusiasm for the coop and my admiration for its system of governance, I’d never been to a general meeting before last night.

Some of that had to do with circumstances. There were other community things I tended to that seemed to require me more than the coop did. It was doing just fine without me sitting through a three-hour meeting. And  while one of the inducements to attend the meeting is work-slot credit, you get to skip a shift twice a year if you attend two meetings, I really like working  my shift.

Plus, the big issues that have come up all seemed to have popular support for my side of things. Yes to grass-raised beef from local farmers. Yes to good beer. No to bottled water. Good riddance to plastic shopping bags. Condemning Israel by banning the seven products imported from there was an overreach. But then, a couple of years ago, the environmental committee proposed banning the plastic bags in the produce and bulk aisles that people put food in, and I wasn’t sure what to think.

It would not be reader friendly to go through the backs and forths, the political wrangling, the discussions and arguments that ensued. Better to watch the excellent local sausage makers put together that fine smoked kielbasa in the meat case, if you want to have fun, but please trust me that a lot of smart people spent a lot of time trying to figure out what to do about the coop’s plastic bag use, which is now limited to what are called roll bags, those thin things you put a lot of loose or wet items into.

It’s an issue. The coop uses 2.5 million roll bags a  year. But the majority of these bags are used to buy local fruits and vegetables and bulk products that regular grocery stores don’t sell. Is it better to sell more local and bulk products? We all agree yes. Will we sell less if folks have to bring their own bags? It seems like yes is the answer.

The fantastic thing about the general meeting I attended tonight is that ideas were discussed. The environmental committee made their case with a very slick video, and then people talked about the proposal (and the video—not everyone appreciated its slickness).

There were some points that were hard to understand, and some people repeated something that had been said previously, but by letting 40 or so people speak directly to the meeting about the proposal many aspects of it were described, defined and evaluated. People had ideas that either supported the proposal  or not. (UPDATE: A writer at Slate and coop member, who hyphenates co-op (no doubt correctly), live blogged the event. Snarkier and sometimes funnier details are there.) Hmm, I realize I didn’t say what it was that the environmental committee was actually proposing.

After all the discussion and negotiation, and while they had started with the idea of a phase out of bag use, what they actually proposed was that the roll bags could remain, but that if you used them it would cost you 20 cents per bag.

That’s what we were voting on.

There was some discussion about whether the plastic roll bags made a greater or lesser environmental impact than the alternatives (primarily washing and reusing heavier plastic bags), but mostly everyone agreed that reducing the use of plastics was a good thing.

What ended up being the biggest point of contention was the 20 cents per bag tax. Some of this was a little silly. How would a checkout person know whether your plastic bag was new or used? Some members worried that such a tax would unfairly impact the poorest members of the coop, while others pointed out that the poor are fully capable of living without plastic bags.

The tax clearly violated the coop’s historical markup of all items sold, which is 21 percent of the wholesale price. Each roll bag costs a fraction of a cent, and one speaker said the markup of 2500 percent would be a cruel tax for some.

Everyone who spoke was in favor of reduced use of plastics, but how do we get there? To cut to the end, we voted against the tax on plastic roll bags. For the time being, until a different proposal passes, we will have plastic roll bags at the coop.

I voted against the proposal because the idea of the tax seemed at odds with the way we do things. And better to decide the real issue here than end up with a half-measure that violates the general operational principles of the coop.

So we’re left with this:

If the plastic roll bags are a problem, as the plastic shopping bags were, we should not provide them. Not providing them would still create problems for the unwrapped fruits, vegetables and bulk items, but that’s a problem that each member would have to solve. Maybe some would move to more packaged foods, which would be too bad, but probably most would reuse their plastic bags as best they could depending on their situation. At least the coop would be acting based on its principles.

Or perhaps those plastic roll bags aren’t a problem. Maybe their benefits outweigh the environmental costs. At least if they’re used prudently, and reused as much as possible (which many people already do).

Neither of those options was up for a vote, and so the proposal failed. The irony is that the tax would have reduced bag usage, everybody’s goal.

We know this because the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which runs New York’s subways and buses and commuter trains began last year to charge riders $1 every time they took a new Metro Card rather than reusing their old one. The goal was to reduce printing costs and litter in stations. What has happened, however, is that millions of cards were reused, over and over, and so fewer odd balances (because  you received a percentage bonus on your refills, you might end up with a difficult to use or refund amount less than the cost of a fare) were abandoned on old cards.

So many odd balances were abandoned that revenue from abandoned cards dropped from $95M in 2012 to $52M in 2013. (Don’t worry about the MTA. They expected to save $6M a year in printing costs from printing fewer cards, and that $1 surcharge replaces the abandoned odd balances nicely.)

Money talks. But as last night’s vote showed, it shouldn’t always have the final word.


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