Is the Harvest Co-Op finished?
Following years of decline, the Harvest Co-op may finally close. Despite active members ringing the alarm 18 months ago, little has been done to address the ongoing crisis. Consultants were brought in, offering an array of technical adjustments. But as they began rearranging the shelves, members began to worry they were rearranging the chairs on a sinking ship.
Originally organized in 1971 as the Boston Food Cooperative, Harvest operates two stores: one in Central Square, Cambridge, the other in Roslindale. At its peak, it employed over 70 people. As a consumer cooperative, shoppers could join by making a small investment. This combined investment is the membership equity, which gives the co-op the ability to make new investments. While anyone can shop at Harvest, its approximately 3,000 members have an equal voice and vote to elect the board of directors.
The board is supposed to represent the interests of the members, set policies, and oversee the management of the co-op. In spring 2017, the board announced that membership equity had been spent and they were still losing tens of thousands of dollars every month. That’s when I started attending the meetings of an independent group of members called Real Co-op Initiative (RCI). The RCI discussed how to save the business, but also how to make Harvest a thriving cooperative community. Where these goals overlap most was membership involvement. We also agreed that new elections should be held immediately for an entirely new board of directors, since the current board was clearly failing.
On July 30, RCI hosted 30 members at the Spontaneous Celebrations community arts space in Jamaica Plain. We voted to ask for the resignation of the current board. Then we set forward a series of principles that included prioritizing member involvement, transparency for financial information, open meetings, no changes to the bylaws without members’ consent, and respect for employees.
Unfortunately, the board dug in its heels. We didn’t get the special members meeting we were calling for until September, when about 80 people packed the Christ Church in Harvard Square. Even under the best conditions, it would have been hard to guide everyone through the proposals being made by RCI. But with so many people in the room, a hostile board, and facilitators who seemed to be in over their heads, it was impossible to get much done in the two hours we had in that space. It felt like our final Hail Mary pass to save Harvest came up short.
We ran a slate of candidates for the Harvest board in October, but only half the seats were up for election. Three RCI candidates were elected. Despite the partial turnover, little changed. Since then, several board members have resigned. Most stunning of all, earlier this month the leading RCI activist, Adam Frost, was expelled from the board less than a year after his election.
Leslie Belay, an RCI activist who resigned from the board a few months earlier, wrote, “This board’s failed effort to hire and pay consultants to raise money from its own members while every single metric screamed bankruptcy was unconscionable. Frost called them out on this and advised an inquiring employee about the likelihood of imminent bankruptcy. This is why he was voted off the board. For speaking truth to ill informed and immature power.”
If you’re just worried about having a place to shop, the stores may be given a second life by the National Co-op Grocers Association (NCG). The NCG is a national cooperative of cooperatives boasting over 150 members, including the Harvest. If you’ve ever shopped there, you may have noticed its logo on coupon books at the store, or on its paper grocery bags.
One of the biggest services provided by NCG is a contract with UNFI, the primary supplier of natural and organic brands to grocery stores. NCG member co-ops get lower prices. In exchange, NCG guarantees debts to UNFI. UNFI is one of Harvest’s largest creditors, and a significant reason why NCG is looking to intervene.
On Aug 6, C.E. Pugh, director of the NCG, spoke at a board-organized meeting in Cambridge. The proposal being developed would close Harvest and re-open a new co-op under a new charter. A new board would be appointed by NCG made up of “retired general managers”—though whether the managers would be Harvest veterans or not was unclear—with the possibility of one community representative. This new co-op would operate the two stores and invest as much as a million dollars in renovations and retrain staff.
Despite taking questions from the audience, Pugh was tight-lipped about any details. Will Harvest members have to rejoin to be in this new co-op? What rights will members have under the bylaws of the new co-op? Will Harvest’s old debts to small and local vendors be honored? Will there be layoffs? The only guarantee was that the new co-op would be legally required to have elections after 12 to 18 months.
News of this offer to save the Harvest brought many observers to the Aug 13 board meeting. We wanted to hear more details about the proposal. We also wanted to voice our priorities for a good deal.
When we arrived on schedule, a meeting was already running in “executive session.” Once the meeting was opened to observers, a motion was made to remove Adam Frost from the board. They made vague accusations of feeling uncomfortable around Frost and charged him with breaking confidentiality because he told a worker that the store is likely to go into bankruptcy. This was already public information. Frost’s real crime was talking and organizing.
The RCI’s Belay commented, “Board members literally acknowledged they lacked knowledge and experience and categorically refused to recognize that Frost and I, having worked [in community organizations and local small businesses] for 30 years, actually do have knowledge and experience.”
Some may say Harvest failed because it couldn’t compete. This explanation is too simplistic. It relieves the board of responsibility and makes bankruptcy seem inevitable. It’s true that there are more places than ever to buy organic groceries, but what general managers and board members seem to have forgotten is that the co-op movement was built on much more than natural foods and bulk discount pricing.
The consumer co-op is a community first. It’s built with deep member involvement, lots of communication, occasional voting, and shared responsibility for the store. It means building community solidarity and a sincere commitment to environmental and social justice. A co-op built from a healthy community may not look very “efficient” to the trained eye of your typical grocery manager, but the daunting challenge of competing with Wall Street behemoths like Amazon melt away.
The Harvest Co-op may get bought by NCG, or the deal might fall through, leaving us to face bankruptcy. Either way, Harvest is no longer the bellwether for the co-op movement that it once was.
Boston, meanwhile, is full of exciting cooperative projects. In downtown Boston, the worker co-op brew pub, Democracy Brewing, opened on July 4. In Dorchester, residents are building a food co-op with extensive participation from the community. The Boston Ujima Project is bringing resources into historically neglected communities to support cooperative businesses.
In that sense, the torch is being passed to a new wave of cooperators.
DigBoston invites Harvest Co-op management to respond to this op-ed.