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This year marked my 10th anniversary of serving as Iowa’s Youth Tour director. Among seeing the iconic monuments and basking in the historical significance of our nation’s capital, the most important part of our 1,030-mile journey is teaching the participants something else. It’s helping the next generation of leaders to understand the significance of the cooperative business model.

For the past three years, Youth Tour participants have been fully immersed in operating a cooperative. The cooperative provides snacks – something that is needed with early wake-up calls and late nights taking in all the sights and sounds the incredible D.C. area offers visitors. The D.C. Munchie Cooperative follows the cooperative business model, operating with a board of directors and staff.

Before we leave on Youth Tour, a survey is sent to all of Iowa’s participants asking what role they would like to play in their cooperative. With the results in hand, a nominating committee is formed. The committee interviews potential directors, and the members elect the board, who in turn, hire a manager. The manager then hires staff. When we arrive in D.C. on Friday night, the manager and directors buy the snack inventory. 

The co-op raised capital for purchasing snacks by selling punch cards that members used for purchases at the co-op’s store. The cooperative also had additional funds available to them via a loan from Marion Denger, the board president for Prairie Energy Cooperative and Iowa’s representative on the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s board. The cooperative also held regular board meetings and delivered ads to encourage members to patronize the co-op’s store, which based its inventory on responses to a member survey.

Back at the hotel, we set up the D.C. Munchie Cooperative. This year, it was a fully functioning co-op with 44 members who each paid $1 to join.

At the end of the week, the D.C. Munchie Cooperative held its annual meeting. The co-op had generated a margin, so the board of directors declared a distribution to members and held back a small amount to restart the co-op next year. For every $5 punch card purchased, co-op members received $3 back. The cooperative members also received their $1 membership back. The students saw firsthand the value of being a member-owner of their D.C. Munchie Cooperative.

It’s gratifying to see the Youth Tour participants work together and show excitement for their co-op. Through this process, they see the cooperative principles in action and gain an appreciation for providing a service that its members want. While the participants get to see government in action on the nation’s biggest stage, they also carry practical lessons home. As cooperatives, we value this business model, which is just as relevant today as it was back in the 1930s. Helping our upcoming leaders to embrace the cooperative way of doing business is one of the most essential lessons from this trip we can teach our youth!  

Shelly York is Iowa’s Youth Tour director and an executive assistant for the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives.

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