Lewiston area co-op success celebrated at New Roots Farm event

PHOTO: Lewiston are cooperatives supported by USDA Rural Development grants, local and other officials, gathered at New Roots Farm in Lewiston Oct. 22 to celebrate the success of the cooperatives and the grant support. (Maureen Milliken photo)

LEWISTON — The United States Department of Agriculture Office of Rural Development on Oct. 22 held a live event at New Roots Cooperative Farm to announce three federal grants to support the work of the Cooperative Development Institute.
CDI is the Northeast’s center for cooperative business education, training, and technical assistance, and works with organizations like New Roots, Isuken Cooperative, the Raise Op housing initiative, Herban Works and Spoke Folks, of Norway, to grow their member-owned businesses and organizations.
CDI was awarded a two-year $250,000 Rural Community Development Initiative, a $175,000 Socially Disadvantaged Groups Grant and a $200,000 Rural Cooperative Development Grant. the funding will help create new businesses, new job, and address identified community needs in underserved communities.
The primary objective of the Cooperative Development Institute is to improve the economic condition of rural areas in the Northeast through the development of cooperatively owned businesses and enterprises.
The Socially Disadvantaged Groups Grant help Black, indigenous, people of color communities and New American communities create food system cooperatives and cooperative business enterprises in central Maine. Groups supported by the grants include Lewiston’s New Roots Cooperative, the first New American-owned cooperative farm in the state, and Isuken Cooperative, the first Somali-Bantu farm-to-table food truck in the country.
Omar Hassan, CDI, cooperative marketing & development assistant, said, “New Roots is four families who have been in the farming business for generations and know what it means to survive with a little. The last 10 years they were able to join the fight against food insecurity, giving back to the community and producing fresh vegetables and fruits chemical-free. It is an honor to see this farm grow the last three years and to be part of that development.”
The Rural Community Development Initiative grant uses a “train the trainer” model to teach cooperative development techniques and business development strategies to community-based organizations, so they can provide technical assistance to address the needs of the clients they serve.
Azenaide Pedro of the Raise Op Housing Cooperative, who worked with CDI on a culturally appropriate child care cooperative in Lewiston as part of the RCDI grant, said the training was a great experience. “I was able to better understand how cooperatives work and…to have a clear picture of the project I wanted in my community. There was so much support in terms of resources and research to find a better child care model that would work for my community. Now I feel more confident about sharing the child care cooperative with others all because of the support that RCDI offered.”
Scott Vlaun, of the Center for an Ecology Based Economy, who helped to develop the Spoke Folks Cooperative, said, “Work shopping our cooperative idea throughout the USDA RCDI funded training gave us confidence that we had a good idea and that we could take it through to becoming an operating cooperative. The process of going from idea to forming a cooperative business instills confidence to be able to help others start businesses in the cooperative model. Being in a cohort of other developers helped us see other possibilities and strengths and pitfalls of various approaches.”
Spoke Folks began as a community bike sharing cooperative in Norway to assist with waste hauling and composting sustainability. During the COVID-19 state shutdown, the cooperative re-focused its mission and partnered with the local food pantry to deliver food to community members in need who needed to shelter in place. On one day in April, Spoke Folks delivered 40 meals to a senior housing facility.
To date the Cooperative Development Institute has provided education and training programs for approximately 16,400 people throughout the Northeast. Thanks to the support of the 2020 USDA grant awards that impact will continue to grow and significantly expand.