Durango Natural Foods is pursuing a $172,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help stabilize its finances and allow it to strengthen its operations after pondering closing in January.
Jules Masterjohn, interim general manager of the 45-year-old cooperative, said funds from the grant would be used to replace equipment that was bought 20 years ago, pay for marketing efforts, increase outreach to clients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and help fund the salary for a new general manager.
A fundraising campaign that brought in $16,000 and a $75,000 no-interest loan from a member-owner has allowed DNF to meet the majority of its past-due bills from local produce and food suppliers.
“We’ve paid off most of the local farmers and vendors, not all of them, but most of them.” Masterjohn said. “There are a handful of local vendors we are working to pay off, but they are the ones who have told us they understand our situation, and they haven’t required us to cover their past-due debt. It’s part of the really positive stuff that has been happening.”
The cooperative’s board of directors had examined closing its doors in January as it struggled to deal with $138,000 in debt to vendors and a $231,500 mortgage debt.
Masterjohn said she has heard from many member-owners who are relieved the cooperative has stabilized to the point where it can begin looking to the future.
“We have had meetings where people have been in tears that we might close. I had one young man come up to me and say, ‘You can’t close. I’ve been shopping here since I was 2 years old with my mother.”
DNF is also working with the National Co-op Grocers to provide training to staff to help with marketing, improve the produce section and assist in finding a new general manager.
National Co-op Grocers works with 143 different food cooperatives across the country and has knowledge about personnel and talent working in food cooperatives. It gives DNF the ability to search nationally to find a new general manager, Masterjohn said.
The cooperative is also working with CDS Consulting Co-op to provide education and training for DNF’s board of directors, Masterjohn said.
Cody Reinheimer, who was recently elected DNF board president, said, “The board of directors is working hard to craft solutions for today’s challenges and create a plan for tomorrow’s abundance. As a locally owned co-op, we are already receiving support from a healthy network of member owners.”
Masterjohn said Ben Jason, founder and president of Living Solar, has donated to the co-op an advertising credit his firm had with KSUT-FM. The donation will allow the cooperative to resume advertising after cutting advertising from the budget to deal with the debt.
“Those are the kinds of relationships a co-op develops with its members that a typical grocery store doesn’t have,” she said of Jason’s donation.