The year was 1972 when volunteers started Seward Cooperative in South Minneapolis. Since then, the co-op has had three different address changes before settling into its current location at 2823 E. Franklin Avenue in 2009. Members invested $1.5 million dollars into that location.
As a member-shared co-op, only Minnesota residents can buy stock in the organization, which currently boasts 18,000 members. Seward Co-op prides itself on receiving food from local farmers right here in Minnesota. According to Seward’s website, the co-ops are based on seven principles:
- Voluntary and open membership
- Democratic member control
- Member economic participation
- Autonomy and independence
- Education, training and information
- Cooperation among cooperatives
- Concern for community
Originally financed by Great Street Loans, a City of Minneapolis initiative that supports companies and organizations creating jobs in the urban area, Seward Co-op had 14 percent diversity in its staff before it expanded. LaDonna Sanders-Redmond, diversity and community engagement manager, was brought in during the expansion, planning to increase staff cultural competency and “increase the likelihood that we would hire more people of color.”
As South Minneapolis increasing grew as a co-op niche market, the facility began bursting at the seams. On a given Saturday, the parking lot bustled with cars waiting in long lines to park,, and the co-op’s unique bike racks, hanging off the side of the building, stayed full of bikes. It was time to expand.
The bike system was a health-conscious focus with 57 percent of the staff then living within walking or biking distance to the store location. When the co-op started looking for new property, a neighborhood that hadn’t seen a grocery store in decades came knocking.
Tom Vogel, marketing manager at Seward Co-op said, “Members of the Bryant Central neighborhood approached Seward Co-op hoping it would bring a store to the neighborhood, and through research we found that 15 percent of our owners came from the Bryant Central neighborhood.” The Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church building was on the real estate market for a few years before Seward Co-op contacted Pastor Billy G. Russell.
Pastor Russell recalled, “I had prayed about that particular space; we bought that lot to build and had the architectural design. Then the current space became available and had everything we needed.”
As businesses were approaching Pastor Russell, the minister said, “[Our] prayer was to let it be a ministry that would be here in this community, [and one] that would minister to the needs of the people.” He said the church had several meetings to discuss the opportunity, and it finally clicked: Seward was the ministry “that would bless this community with fresh food.”
Pastor Russell asked that the new Seward be named Seward Friendship Store, and Vogel agreed.
Vogel said, “Once the Friendship Store opened [at 317 E. 38th St.], the research showed that the percentage was underestimated and was closer to between 20 percent and 25 percent of owners living in the neighborhood.” It wasn’t just the owners who lived in the Bryant Central neighborhood; according to Sanders-Redmond, “20 percent of Seward Co-op’s staff also lived in the Bryant Central neighborhood.”
When the MSR asked about diversity at the stores, Sanders-Redmond replied, “We don’t keep demographic data on members, so we don’t know what the ethnic backgrounds of our owners are.” But she noted that the Friendship Store is 55 percent diverse in its staff members. “It balances out through the three businesses to 36 percent people of color on staff,” she said.
The third business Sanders-Redmond referenced was the Creamery Cafe housed in the Co-op Creamery building at 2601 E. Franklin Avenue, which opened the same year as the Friendship Store in 2015. The Co-op Creamery building also houses food production and administrative offices.
Owners have power at Seward Cooperative, not only through their stock, but also at the checkout lane every time they shop the stores. The collective power of owners giving back (or “rounding up” the total) at the cash register during their shopping visits adds up to $17 to $25,000. Seward Co-op’s SEED Program funding is given monthly in the form of a check to a food shelf, a disaster area, fires or tsunami victims and/or farmer droughts.
According to Vogel, since the program started in 2011, SEED has returned $1.25 million to the community. Local co-op giving has gone to Pillsbury United Communities, Brian Coyle Community Center, Isuroon Ethnic Food Shelf, Sabathani Community Center Food Shelf, Sisters Camelot, MAD DADS Inc. and Second Harvest Food Shelf.
When the Friendship Store opened, Seward launched a few educational cooking programs. The Nourish program rotates instructors offering classes on ethnic foods and teaching such classes as how to shop on a budget.
Many instructors are from the Seward Co-op neighborhoods, and food choices have included Asian and African foods. Many of the cooking classes are free to attend.
Although Seward Co-op does not currently plan to expand into other neighborhoods, Seward wants to keep adding benefits to their surrounding communities and launching a few new initiatives, which are still under wraps.
In October, Seward Co-op and the board of directors will hold its annual meeting on the University of Minnesota campus. For this owners’ meeting, Tunde Wey, a Nigerian chef, will be cooking up a Nigerian meal for the owners and staff. The voting for board members will open September 25 and close October 23 at the annual meeting.
Seward Cooperative’s website states: “Be it resolved that Seward Community Co-op’s Board of Directors, on behalf of the owners of Seward Co-op and compelled by our Ends Statement to sustain a healthy community, supports Black Lives Matter. As such, we support financial contributions to the movement, as well as written and verbal public support for Black Lives Matter.”
Jonika Stowes welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.
Jonika Stowes is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.