Co-op women

Women lead the way in Minnesota food co-ops. MWP interviewed three general managers for their perspectives on women and co-op leadership

Amy Fields, top right, photo by Sarah Whiting.
Top left: Gail Graham. Bottom: Susan McGaughey

Gail Graham has served as general manager of Mississippi Market, which has two St. Paul locations, for the past 12 years. Her co-op management history dates back 30 years, however, beginning with the Wedge and followed by Seward Co-op. She first came to the Wedge as a volunteer and was elected to the board of directors in 1977, a position that honed her leadership skills and enabled her to become the store’s first GM.

Amy Fields was hired in 2003 to finalize the planning and financing and then open Eastside Food Coop in northeast Minneapolis. Fields was still in college when she volunteered to unload trucks at a co-op in Pennsylvania, sparking an interest that eventually led her to run a co-op in Kansas for six years and then become director of a housing nonprofit there.

Susan McGaughey was a middle-school teacher before she took maternity leave and started working evenings at Valley Natural Foods in Burnsville. Thirty-one years later, she’s still there, now as general manager.

What leadership qualities do you, as a woman, bring to the role of general manager?
Amy Fields: An emotional attachment to the co-op has certainly characterized my work. Now that I am a mother, I think I’m more nurturing-I want to be successful operationally, but I also want to make sure that people who work at the co-op have a healthy work/life balance.

Gail Graham: I work in a collaborative manner, building relationships and developing others. I think all business leaders need to demonstrate integrity, transparency, resourcefulness and coalition building no matter what organization they head.

Susan McGaughey: Recognizing the strengths in others and working to build a team. We believe in servant leadership-empowering our staff to do what they do best.

What are the different ways you see women as leaders in the food co-op movement?
Fields: I see women successful everywhere in the food co-op sector: in operations, administration, on boards, as vendors, as distributors, as consumers. There’s definitely a connection with nourishment on a number of levels.

Where I think we lose the connection is when we look at other areas of our lives. I don’t see women-who are so prominent in advocating for a sustainable food system-advocating for sustainable childcare and education or for cooperative finance that would enrich their local communities. I don’t see women demanding cooperative healthcare. I’m not sure why we are so successful in this endeavor of sustainable food, but we aren’t building bridges to other cooperative sectors.

Graham: Women fill a variety of roles in co-ops, from educated shopper, to front-line staff, to top leadership. We create and communicate a vision of how our work can create positive change in the lives of our families and in our communities, and work to build the commitment and the relationships that will help make that change happen.

McGaughey: Women may bring a more collaborative than authoritative approach, empowering management teams to make decisions that create unique results. For example, [Our co-op] has recently added a floral warehouse, a gluten-free bakery, and a community garden through team collaborations. There is passion to bring healthy food to families and community, there’s the opportunity to collaborate to make an impact on your community.

What does the future hold for food coops?
Graham: People want food they can trust; there is a renewed interest in cooking and preserving food; and people want to shop close to home and strengthen their communities. We continue to do a great job of creating, implementing and championing innovative and socially responsible ideas that lead the food industry, help build our local food economy and meet the needs of our member owners. Our job is to figure out how to keep being relevant as the needs of our owners change. Over 65,000 households in the metro area belong to food co-ops and I expect that number will keep going up.

McGaughey: People are becoming more conscious and aware about where their food comes from and what impacts their health. [Co-ops] will continue to experience a steady growth as we have in the past. Our growth comes from our customers’ trust in the authentic relationship we have with our local farmers and growers.

Fields: I think the natural food co-ops in Minnesota are thriving [and] are visionary organizations working toward developing a robust, sustainable local food system. I would like to think that the future of food co-ops in Minnesota includes more participation and support of sustainable producers, more channels for these producers to market their food. What I do know is, if our future holds increases in fuel and agricultural inputs, and if industrial agriculture is recognized for a variety of reasons to be unsustainable, the brilliant and dedicated people working in the food cooperative sector will implement courageous and fantastic programs to nourish their communities.