Provender Stewardship Fund Founder Gavin McComas’ Passionate Address to the Board of Directors

January 13th 2021

Editor’s Note:
Mid-summer 2020, Provender’s Board of Directors was seriously considering whether it was time to fold the organization, given the challenging financial crisis in which it found itself. Upon hearing about this internal debate, Gavin McComas, owner of Sundance Natural Foods in Eugene, Oregon, attended a crucial board meeting in which the members were going to vote on the organization’s fate. After his passionate and inspiring address to those in attendance, the board ultimately decided to double down its commitment to creating a turn-around for Provender Alliance. What follows is the transcription of the audio recording of his impromptu speech (edited slightly by Gavin for clarity and accuracy).

“So, I  just wanted to say a few words about my feelings about the situation that Troy [Sundance’s Grocery Manager and Provender Board treasurer] shared with me about the kind of existential crossroads that Provender is at. 

I’ve been involved in the natural foods movement for 50 years. Originally, I was a working member of the Willamette People’s Food Co-op, not too many blocks from where Sundance is, back in the early seventies, and I also worked at the Westside Food Co-op & Growers Market here in Eugene.

And in 1983, I had an opportunity to buy into Sundance Natural Foods and actually make a living at something I’d grown to love.

That same year I attended my first Provender Alliance conference, and that was a life-changing experience, to be with people who were so dedicated to ideals that were so dear to my heart.

It was the broad scope of values that Provender addressed there: belief in care of the environment, taking care of the people who grow and produce the food, concerns for animal rights, and so forth.

And the first conference I went to was at Camp Corbett, a very intimate setting, where we slept in dorm rooms and prepared our own food – it was a joyful collaboration full of passionate enthusiasm for the “cause.”

Back then, of course, there was no Executive Director, there were the board members doing all the work. Six years later, in 1989, I was asked to join the Provender board.  I was shocked that the main topic of the first meeting I attended was whether Provender needed to be dissolved.

I loved the natural foods movement and found my experiences at the Provender Conferences invaluable because of the practical things I learned about natural foods topics and about how to operate my business. Inspirational keynotes, informative workshops, networking with fellow natural foods enthusiasts – how could we possibly let this go? Just as important to me was the infusion of enthusiasm that gathering with like-minded people brought me and my staff.  Stimulating conversations at mealtimes, late-night rap sessions, singing and partying together, all-night poker games – the totality of the experience nourished the mind and spirit and the vegetarian meals nourished our bodies. I would like to think that my enthusiastic insistence that Provender was too important to consider terminating contributed to getting the Board to keep it going.

I said then and  I’d like to say now that Provender Alliance is really the heart and soul of the natural foods movement — the natural foods movement that embodies the values that I was just mentioning. Which, for better or for worse, evolved into the natural foods “industry” which kind of co-opted those values and capitalized on them.

Sundance has always brought as many people as possible to the Provender Conference. I think our record was twenty-two people one year – a pretty large percentage of our staff.

And the reason I bring so many people to the conference, as many as are willing to come, is because I believe so strongly that young people need to be exposed to people who have invested themselves in making the world a better place and have found ways to do that in active and engaged ways and to make a living while doing so. 

And through the 35+ years that I’ve been bringing people to conferences, there’s always been a new crop of young “Sundancers” who are inspired by the keynotes, stimulated by the workshops, and uplifted by networking with idealistic people who believe in the possibility of a better future for people on this planet. After each conference what we learned and how we felt about the movement got shared with the rest of our staff and even with our customers. So, when I was told that many Provender members decreased their attendance or terminated their membership because they didn’t think there was an adequate “return on their investment,” I was astonished and dismayed.  

It’s unfortunate that the experience of attending the annual Provender Conference has been monetized, as so much of our life has been, that many look upon the values that underlie the organization as something that has to have monetary value in order to justify attending the conference.  I actually think Provender does provide a significant return on the investment. In my opinion, the only way independent natural foods businesses can survive in an increasingly corporatized world is by maintaining high product standards and upholding the basic values of the natural foods movement.

Of course, many companies now have “values” that serve as window dressing so the corporations that own them can sell themselves as authentically concerned about the well-being of others when in fact they are really only interested in making money and don’t have a genuine concern for the health of people or the planet.

More people than we may realize do want to support idealistic, independent, local retailers, small food manufacturers, and local organic farmers. We need to keep the spirit alive and remind ourselves that our work has a purpose beyond making a living. We need Provender’s annual infusion of inspiration, the opportunity to network with fellow travelers and celebrate our community of committed adherents to the values and ideals of the natural food movement.

At that first board meeting which I attended, not only did I get on my soapbox extolling the importance of the Provender Alliance, I also pledged to help keep things going by pledging to contribute a modest monthly stipend to the cause. For a number of years, Sundance sent Provender $150.00 a month to help support the organization.

And in fact, at the first Provender Awards ceremony, Sundance was given an award for “putting our money where our mouth is.”

And, at this juncture in Provender’s existential situation, I would like to once again put my money where my mouth is by pledging $50,000 dollars to the organization to be paid in installments of $1,000 each month.

And I would also like to help encourage support from other businesses, many with much deeper pockets than Sundance, who also have their roots in the Natural Foods Movement and in fact whose success have been made possible because of the natural foods movement. I want to appeal to their sense of idealism and the recognition that their success has been based on, fostered by, born out of the movement .  I would  like to urge them to pay back the movement that led to their good fortune by paying forward to support the natural foods movement as embodied in the Provender Alliance and its Annual Educational Conference.

I’d like to see the money raised in this way used to keep Provender alive and to help lower the cost of attending the annual conference in order to encourage and enable more people to attend, and see if we can broaden the basis for the organization and revitalize it in that way. With monthly pledges from businesses, organizations and individuals we can underwrite a secure future for Provender and the natural foods movement that it embodies.

Many businesses grew out of this movement and have profited from it

Please join me in underwriting all of the work that Provender does (Community Conversations events, online workshops and webinars, monthly eNews, Quarterly Journal, and when once again possible, the local get-togethers), and especially the vitally important Annual Conference.

I want to encourage other businesses to help get Provender back on its feet so that it can continue walking the talk that has inspired and guided the natural foods movement for over 40 years. While it has its roots in the Northwest, I think that Provender is the heart and soul of the natural foods movement not only in our region, but throughout the country. There is nothing like Provender anywhere.  We can’t afford to lose this essential resource.

~ Gavin McComas, Owner, Sundance Natural Foods, Eugene, Oregon

To find out more about the Provender Stewardship Fund and explore the possibility of becoming a Steward with a sustaining contribution that is comfortable for you, click here. You can also contact Provender’s executive director Abigail Harris at 503-859-3600 or by email. Thank you!