AUNE’s Spark, Muscle, and Skill Help Build a Community Co-op

Jen Risley 009Scratch a Monadnock Food Co-op member, and an AUNE alum, a faculty member or a student is bound to shine through. Jen Risley, MEd ‘04, marketing and membership manager for the co-op, gives a try at listing all the AUNE-connected folks who have been involved along the way.

In 2008, AUNE environmental studies students Bonnie Hudspeth, MS ’08, and Katie Stoner, MS ’08, began planning a Keene food cooperative as a master’s project with Amanda Costello, MS ’07, district manager of the Cheshire County Conservation District (CCD).

Risley, meanwhile, had graduated from AUNE in 2004, taught school in Hanover, New Hampshire, and returned to the Monadnock region. She had gone to community forums held by the conservation district about bringing more local food to downtown. “The message was loud and clear: ‘We want a food co-op,’” she said.

Costello, Hudspeth, Risley, and others formed a volunteer committee through the conservation district’s Monadnock Farm and Community Connection group. The group’s goal was to strengthen the regional food and farm system.  It received $5,000 from the Keene City Council for a feasibility study, and went on to solicit support from community leaders and businesses.

Energy Makes it Happen
“When the City of Keene did its master plan [adopted in 2010], there was overwhelming support for a food co-op,” Risley said. “All that energy just made it happen.” The co-op incorporated in 2010, chose the Railroad Square site, and hired Hudspeth as project manager.

The following year, Jess Gerrior, MS ’11, signed on as interim project manager for the cooperative. Jaime Contois, MS ’03, a board member and its treasurer, was involved from the beginning. Former AUNE staff member Sandy Hamm worked on the membership database. Polly Chandler served on the Board.  Rich Grogan, former AUNE faculty member in the Department of Management, and Jan Fiderio, MBA ’12, served on the marketing committee; Dave Morrill, MBA ’09, helped early on with marketing, along with teams of other MBA students. One MBA team created a plan specifically for a member loan campaign as part of the financing plan, and a second team created a plan to market the store when it opened.

In April 2011, the co-op held its first Member Loan Campaign. Investments by members raised $800,000 in capital; between member loans and equity, more than 70 percent of the co-op’s start-up and operating costs were covered. Its second Member Loan Campaign winds up June 1.

“Their hard work is paying off for the community,” Risley said. A membership drive begun in 2010—potluck dinners were a favorite and effective way to recruit new members—set a goal of 1,200 members at opening. By the time the co-op opened in early April of this year, it had more than 1,500 members.

Risley recently won the Monadnock Region Emerging Leader award from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. It’s the same award that Hudspeth won in 2008, in part for her work starting the co-op. Hudspeth, who now works for the Neighboring Food Co-op Association; Costello, and Risley had also received AUNE’s 2009 Alumni Environmental Excellence Award.

A Community Hub
Risley began her new position January 1, but she had been a volunteer since 2008 and part-time employee before that. Her job is to get new members and to spread the word about the co-op. “We are community-owned, and provide local, organic, and healthy food,” she said. “But we’re also working to make food accessible to our neighbors, so all of our products don’t necessarily fit that niche.”

She sees the co-op as an important community center where ideas can take root and grow. One example she gives is the time bank promoted by Transition Keene, which has many AUNE connections, including Steve Chase, director of the Advocacy for Social Justice and Sustainability concentration in AUNE’s Department of Environmental Studies.  “Projects like that can get a jump start here, a place where you can connect with these initiatives at an early stage,” Risley said. “We’ll be a switchboard for things that get the community excited, empowered, and working together. We have 1,500 members in tune with that.”

Eventually, Risley hopes, the co-op will invest in infrastructure that will support local agriculture, such as farm-to-freezer project so farmers can extend the season.  “There’s lots of potential for us to be more than just a market.”

The co-op, located at Cypress Street in Keene, has its grand opening June 20-22. Stop by—the chances are pretty good that you’ll run into someone from AUNE.