Ever go into your local co-op or grocery store and stare at the labels wondering how to decide which is best? We know we have..
Shopping at our local Seward Co-op, we noticed a P6 sticker popping up on more and more of our favorite items. So we sat down with the team spearheading this program at the kick off of P6 month to learn more, meet some of our local farmers/ producers and sample some delicious products. Think of the P6 label as a stamp of approval saying, equitable partnerships exist for these small, local farmers, long term.
The P6 label makes us feel a lot better about what we choose to buy because we know someone is making sure these farmers are also benefiting from our purchase. We appreciate the practices they choose to use, in order to produce quality food for our families and want to make sure they can continue doing so for generations to come.
So next time you're stuck between option A or B.. check for option P! (P6 That is!!)
What is the primary goal or mission of the P6 program?
The main goal of P6 is to support small, local, and cooperative farmers and food producers.
Here is the P6 Mission & Vision:
The Principle Six (P6) Cooperative Trade Movement exemplifies just and equitable trade relationships between farmers, producers, retailers and consumers rooted in cooperative principles and values. P6 is the symbol of a growing consumer-supported food economy recognizing product grown or produced locally, or internationally, by small farmers/producers, and cooperatives.
Members of the Principle Six (P6) Cooperative Trade Movement envision a food system in which farmers, workers, and producers are valued and compensated fairly at each step of the supply chain.
P6 Members view consumers as powerful participants in global and local economies: engaged, educated and empowered to use their purchasing dollars as a tool for social change.
P6 Members believe that by creating a values-based economy we contribute to healthy, just, and sustainable communities locally and globally.
P6 believes products should be:
P6, the Principle Six Cooperative Trade Movement, is a cooperative. In order to accomplish our goals, we work with cooperative grocery stores and farmer cooperatives as members. We serve those members by providing resources, training, technical assistance and branding and marketing support to allow P6 members to most effectively increase market share to small, local, and cooperative farmers and food producers.
Food co-ops as an industry have done a great job building up the demand and pathways for natural foods, organic foods, and local foods. Through P6, we want to continue that work by adding a lens of justice and economic empowerment for farmers and farm workers. We want people to think about, “who is benefiting from this purchase?” when they make buying decisions, and have the information at hand to know the answer. Additionally, those natural, organic, and local foods are no longer only the realm of cooperative grocery stores. In an increasingly competitive landscape, P6 allows grocery co-ops to differentiate themselves from competition by telling the story of their long term commitment to local farmers and sustainable food systems.
How does the P6 program work?
P6 is implemented at an in-store level by participating member coops. P6 uses shelf-level consumer-recognized branded icons to direct customer purchases to products meeting two of the three P6 criteria: cooperative, small, and local. Each P6 member store sets its own definitions for the three criteria of “small, local, and cooperative.” Local definitions, for example, can range from “within 250 miles of our store” to “within the 5 state region.” Most stores consider the “small” criteria to mean independent ownership and selling directly or through regional distribution (not through national distribution). “Co-op” refers to the legal structure of being organized cooperatively, although some stores allow nonprofits under this criterion as well. By design, P6 is a very participatory program. The process of defining small, local, and cooperative at each store opens important staff conversations around their commitment to building a fair food system. At the same time, this allows P6 to be contextualized to each store’s region and community. Most stores already have “local” definitions when they join the program, for example – and not everyone has access to regional distribution, so their “small” criteria may not include that element.
To receive the P6 designation, a producer must meet two of the three criteria. Every product in the store is vetted by co-op staff. Products that meet two of the three criteria and are considered P6 get a sticker or other tag at the shelf level, where customers can see it, and are tracked in the stores’ point of sale systems, which is how we figure out how P6 sales are doing. Sometimes deciding if a product is P6 is really easy – Rochdale Farms, for example, is a small, local dairy cooperative in the Upper Midwest, so their butter, yogurt, and cheese are labeled P6 at all our Upper Midwest members. Cascadian Farms is a brand that’s owned by General Mills, so while they are “local” to our Minnesota members, they aren’t small or cooperative – it’s easy to determine that they are not P6. There is certainly a grey area in between, which is one of the most interesting and engaging parts of P6. Because stores determine the criteria and do their own vetting, the staff have to really engage with the question: “does this product meet our values for what a P6 product should be?” This can involve calling the producer to find out more information about their structure, sourcing, and scale. We love starting conversations!
How long has P6 been in existence and on what scale?
P6 was founded in 2010 by Equal Exchange in partnership with six grocery co-ops as a way to support small farmers across all geographies – in our local communities and for those farmers growing international products like coffee and chocolate. As the program evolved, it became apparent that the leadership needed to come from the grocery co-ops. In 2012, Seward Co-op in Minneapolis took over hosting the program and the national office moved from the East Coast to Minneapolis. At that point, our national director Aaron Reser was hired, based on her experience managing the Mill City Farmers Market and working with co-ops in the past. Ruby Levine, our Marketing and Communications Coordinator, first started with P6 as an intern in the summer of 2014. While we are a small organization with only 1.5 staff people (Ruby is half time), we have very strong engagement from our membership and most of the daily tasks related to implementing P6 are carried out by staff within each P6 grocery co-op.
You can see our members at our website (p6.coop/about-p6). Here in Minnesota, grocery co-op shoppers can find P6 at Seward Co-op and Eastside Co-op. We just brought on three members from Wisconsin – one grocery store, Menomonie Market Food Co-op, is going to launch the P6 program this fall, and two of our new wholesale members, Maple Valley Cooperative and Organic Valley, are based in western Wisconsin. There was so much enthusiasm from those co-ops because the people who work there shop at Viroqua Food Co-op, which is another member store, which goes to show the importance of building local and regional relationships.
What does it mean if I buy bananas with a P6 label on them?
As a customer, when you make the decision to buy a P6 banana, it means that the people producing your bananas are paid a fair price for their product. It means the farmers have had a voice in the decisions made by the cooperative that they belong to. It means that those farmers are able to stay on their land, instead of working on someone else’s plantation. It means that any profit earned from the $1.19 per pound that you spent to buy those bananas is going to go to community efforts like buying medicine for the farmers’ children, or opening schools, instead of to enriching a corporation.
Right now, the only P6 bananas sold by the grocery coops we work with are produced by small farmer co-ops who sell to Equal Exchange. Bananas have long history of exploitation that still exists today, and building an alternative supply chain for fair bananas has taken an incredible amount of work, meaning that there are very few genuinely fair bananas on the market. You can learn more about Equal Exchange’s work in the banana industry at http://www.beyondthepeel.com
Where does the P6 name come from?
There are 7 international cooperative principles, which you can see here: https://www.ncba.coop/7-cooperative-principles P6 gets its name from the 6th Cooperative Principle: Cooperation Among Cooperatives. P6, the organization, was founded to exemplify this principle and find a way to bring it alive by building cooperation among cooperatives.
Who qualifies to be a P6 member?
In order to become a member of P6, the co-op, your business has to be a cooperative; either a retail grocery co-op or a farmer/producer co-op. Non-co-op businesses can’t join the organization. The on-ramping process of becoming a member involves a lot of conversation about whether the program is the right fit for the business – we talk to a lot more co-ops than end up joining.
How do members decide which producers are P6?
Each store is responsible for deciding who gets the P6 label – who meets the small, local, and cooperative criteria – at their store. We have a really strong belief in local autonomy, and it doesn’t make any sense for us to tell people in Tennessee or Arkansas who their small, local producers are. Because our different stores are different sizes, internal structures, and existing systems, each store decides how to label P6 a little differently. When stores get started with P6, they set up a P6 committee, which includes people from all different parts of the store, and audit their existing products to decide which get the P6 label. This is done by checking each product against the P6 criteria, as that store has defined them. At most stores, the buyers in each department are responsible for researching whether new products are P6 when they bring them in.
Which communities do you primarily serve?
P6 serves eaters, grocery co-ops, and small, local, and cooperative producers. We serve small, local, and cooperative producers by highlighting their products and working at a lot of levels to drive market share in their direction, away from the corporate food system. This includes especially serving our farmer co-op members, who we work to connect with customers in the service of building a cooperative supply chain. We serve grocery co-ops by helping them articulate their values about the kind of food economy they want to see, growing their store sales in a way that aligns with their values, and conveying that message to everyone they interact with. We support eaters by helping them make informed decisions about where their food dollars go. We are able to have the biggest impact in the communities where P6 stores are located.
How can communities further support P6?
Individuals can support P6 by learning more about the program and, if they live somewhere with a P6 co-op, looking for the P6 label when they shop. Make a decision to vote with your dollar when you are choosing which product to buy. If you shop at a co-op that isn’t a member of P6, tell your co-op that you want them to join the program. (If you don’t shop at a co-op, consider checking it out! It’s pretty great.) Food producers should make note of whether the co-ops they sell to are P6 co-ops. If so, learn more about what that means and how you can help the co-op increase sales of your product. If not, talk to them about joining the program.
I would like my product to receive the P6 label, how do I do this?
One important thing is that P6 is not an outside certification program. P6 is a label that products receive at a store level – it’s not meaningful to say that a product is P6 outside of the context of a P6 grocery co-op. P6 is a program owned by and designed for cooperatives and the label is found only within cooperative grocery stores. If you are a producer who sells a product to a P6 co-op, you start by talking to the buyer that you work with at that co-op about why you do or do not receive the label in the store. They may have advice for you about what you need to change to get the label, or may be excited about bringing on new products that are a clear fit for the P6 label and fill a customer need at the co-op. Have the conversation!
What is P6 most proud of accomplishing thus far?
The most exciting thing about the P6 program is that we are seeing it actually make a difference in how many dollars go to small, local, and cooperative producers. Here’s an infographic about the sales numbers at Seward Co-op, which is a great example.
What challenges has the P6 program faced?
One of our biggest challenges is helping stores get accurate, honest information about the sourcing on international products. In order to receive the P6 label, international products (coffee, chocolate, bananas, etc) must come from small farmer cooperatives. While there are some companies we really trust like Equal Exchange and Just Coffee, it can be very hard to find reliable and transparent sourcing information from many companies. There is a lot of misinformation out there about what the different fair trade labels mean and recent changes in the fair trade industry have created customer and buyer confusion. Here’s a pretty good primer on the meaning of the different labels. P6 does our best to support stores in only labeling products that actually source from small farmer co-ops, but it can be difficult information to find out. This is a big growth area for us as we figure out how to most effectively get and share this information.
What is P6 most hopeful or excited for in the future?
As we are expanding to more stores, we’re increasing the collective buying power of P6 co-ops, and in turn our potential for collective impact. We are excited about the role P6 co-ops can have in improving economic viability of local and regional food systems in regions where several P6 co-ops exist and together create a powerful slice of market share for small producers locally, and about building new cooperative supply chains with producer co-ops across the country and internationally. Right now, we’re working with one of our newest farmer members, Farmer Direct Co-op, to help them get the beans and grains they grow in Canada into the US market. There’s a lot of questions around distribution, price, and what products are needed that we are working with Farmer Direct and our grocery co-op members to help resolve. We’re really excited to take on more of these types of challenges and connect more farmer co-ops with the grocery co-op market.
What’s the most important thing people should know about P6?
First, the most important thing to know is that P6 means small, local, and cooperative. Going a little deeper than that, we want people to understand why it’s important to support small, local, cooperative producers: to think about who owns, controls, and benefits from our food system. We want you to think through where your food dollar goes at the end of the day.