Celebrating 40 Years of Co-op Local.
At the Olympia Food Co-op, we’re celebrating our fourth decade of bringing healthy food to more people by supporting local farmers and producers who strive to use sustainable methods and ethical business practices. In this article, we’ll revisit the Coop legend, which emerged as an artifact of largely oral histories and herstories. We invite you to contribute to this legend with your corrections, stories, photos, home movies, and memorabilia to be included in our 40th anniversary documentary. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Now with a burgeoning membership of 30,000 shoppers, two bustling stores, and a dedicated Garden Center, the Olympia Food Co-op has come a long way. It all began when founding members began sharing bulk goods and veggies in the basement of the ABC House and formed a food-buying club called “The 4 oz. Okeydokey.” This club joined five other food buying clubs which included Foote Street, McFee, and the Evergreen Dorm.
As legend has it, December 1976 saw the Co-op’s articles of incorporation formalized, as a member-owned, collectively managed, not-for-profit organization, with a mission statement that reflected our collective values, in part:
…to provide wholesome foods and other goods and services, accessible to all, through a locally oriented, collectively managed, not-for-profit cooperative organization that relies on consensus decision making…
According to the Co-op legend, our first commercial space was in downtown Olympia, situated on Columbia in the block between 4th Ave and State. We opened in 1977, and after three short years of renting downtown, the infant collective was able to purchase a bright and cozy storefront in a residential neighborhood on Rogers, and the westside Co-op was born.
Asked about the Co-op culture in the early days, Pat, the westside Olympia Food Co-op Cashier Coordinator remembers, “It used to be you could only play the instrumental music in the store. There were cassettes with special color-codings on them so you knew which you could play during business hours. The music policy was changed in 1987.” Today, music at the stores spans the vast tastes and moods of the entire staff. On any day you could walk in at different hours and shop to freeform Jazz, 70’s funk, rhumba, Olympia Riot Grrls, lounge, electronica, twee, Black Sabbath, or even sweet silence.
The community response was overwhelming, and by the early 90’s, we were feeling growing pains and wanted to get more good food to more hungry people. The collective began working on the process for opening a second location. Olympia Food Co-op Staff members Harry and Susan took the lead on the expansion coordination, and Harry made certain that members could give input at each stage of the process. A majority of members asked for a new store on the Eastside, and the collective agreed on renovating an RV dealership they discovered nestled on a hill overlooking Pacific Avenue. The store opened officially on April Fools’ Day, 1994. Larger than the westside store, the staff of 13 was doubled to accommodate.
Years went by and the Co-op developed a strong presence in the Olympia community. We became not only a hub of social activity, but also of activism. The Olympia Food Co-op mission statement has guided our interactions between our democratically elected Board of Directors, our staff collective, our membership and our greater community. In solidarity with our global community, the Co-op has supported social justice movements through sponsorships, donations, register round-ups, information campaigns, policies, and our keystone programs: the Local Farms Program, Working Member Program, and Cooperative Access Program.
We’ve sponsored activities such as the Olympia Film Festival, Olympia Pride, Love Our Local, Olympia Bicycle Commuter Contest, KAOS Radio presentation of Democracy Now, Domestic Fair Trade Association annual conferences, and Nisqually Tribe Canoe Journey 2016 to name just a few.
We’ve contributed to various local public schools and libraries, childcare programs, local organizations that support low-income and un-housed people, the arts, youth empowerment, the LGBTQ community, the struggle to end racism, food justice, farmworkers and laborers, and legal defense. We’ve also donated to activist training programs such as Backbone Campaign, Street Medic Training, and to the Americorps workers’ Martin Luther King Jr. Day programs.
We’ve offered our members the opportunity to contribute their own money to selected humanitarian campaigns by rounding up from the cost of their total purchase at the register. The Community Sustaining Fund was our very first round up program (still active today!), and was followed by (in no particular order) relief for local farms damaged by floods; Musicians Village New Orleans (after Hurricane Katrina, in conjunction with Traditions Fair Trade and members of the local jazz community); Gabriela and Coop NATTCO for typhoon relief in the Philippines; the campaign to free indigenous activist Leonard Peltier; support for Standing Rock oil pipeline resisters; and disaster relief for Magic Kombucha after their facility fire.
We’ve promoted issues by sharing information through tabling, posting flyers, newsletter articles, our website and member emails, and community classes, as well as by networking with local community groups.
Our Board has ensured that we abide by operating policies, which allow us to use social criteria to select appropriate products for our stores, and to participate in boycotts such as the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign against the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
LOCAL FARMS PROGRAM
While large chain stores tout “local” produce from sprawling industrial farms as far away as Oregon and California, “Co-op Local” means the food is grown on farms ranging from ½ an acre to 50 acres in size. It then travels from no further than Thurston, Mason, Lewis, Pierce, and Gray’s Harbor counties. This arrangement ensures the freshest possible food on our plates, while saving resources, protecting the environment, strengthening local economies, and building community networks.
Our Local Farms Program is an example of successful cooperative negotiations between suppliers and buyers. The program encourages local farmers to work together, rather than competing with one another. Produce managers at the time, Patrice and Samantha, created the program in order to streamline the process of purchasing produce from local farms, to improve year-round consistency and diversity of produce, and to satisfy the farmers’ desires for a dependable living wage. We now meet with our farmers annually, and agree upon an average market price prior to each season. This allows farmers to apportion their planting time and seed money more effectively, ensuring our shoppers have plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables year round, glistening on our shelves and featured in our deli and salad bar preparations.
By decreasing our profit margin, the Olympia Food Co-op can offer our local farmers good prices for their crops without substantially increasing the amount our shoppers pay. We can do this because we’re a not-for-profit enterprise, and making surplus money is not our guiding motivation.
WORKING MEMBER PROGRAM
It has been said that the Olympia Food Co-op wrote the book on working member systems. Our working member discounts are larger than anywhere else in the country, and our volunteer participation continues to grow. Thousands of volunteers have worked with the Co-op over the last four decades. Eastside Olympia Food Co-op Working Member Coordinator, Alejandro, joined the organization in 2005. He reflects on the program:
“We have people coming from different aspects of our society all gathering together to learn to socialize with respect, in a cooperative effort to accomplish a paradigm shift that relies on the ideal of living in a community which provides sustainable food for everybody.”
Members who volunteer to work in the stores help control operating costs and create lower prices for everyone. Working members can choose from positions such as cashier, courtesy clerk, grocery and produce stocker, store closer or opener, as well as engaging in administrative tasks and special projects.
Four generations of working members have now grown up with the Co-op as a hub of their social activities, and have formed friendships, and even love after coming together for volunteer service in our stores. Alejandro elaborates:
“Through the years I’ve been able to see the transformation of people’s lives, in their health, in their self-acceptance within our society, and their skills and ability to perform. The Olympia Food Co-op would not be what it is without the volunteer spirit of people to make this happen. We are proud of our volunteer working members.”
COOPERATIVE ACCESS PROGRAM
Our regular membership fee is one of the lowest in the country, and our Cooperative Access Program allows low-income members to join free of charge. They also receive a discount on every purchase. Seniors and individuals with disabilities receive free lifetime memberships and member prices, while non-members pay a surcharge to help offset our costs.
Our commitment to social justice does not only extend outward. Hundreds of staff members have left their mark on the organization since its inception in 1977, and the Olympia Food Co-op has remained true to our vision of collective empowerment and human dignity by supporting our 88 individual staff members with a living wage, a self-structured work schedule, generous health insurance, compassionate family leave policies, on-going anti-oppression training, and financial support for continuing education and professional development.
Meanwhile, our stores themselves have continued to grow and change. Through extensive collaboration with the membership and staff in 2012, three directives were determined: to open a garden center, to remodel the westside, and to explore eastside store expansion. In 2014, both the westside remodel and the opening of the garden center, located next door, were completed. Sylvan, a Co-op staff member, explains that the garden center location furthers the Co-op mission by providing the community, “reasonably priced, high-quality, socially and environmentally-responsible supplies for growing and preserving food and medicine, and creating beautiful, inspiring, and environmentally renewing landscapes.” Even the eastside plans are taking shape. Just this year, we built a more accessible customer service desk at our largest location, creating more space for shopping and reducing crowded spots in our store. We also removed a wall revealing windows that flooded the front of the store with light. Members and staff are anxious to see how the shopping experience will be changing.
That brings us to 2017, and the future now being written by our membership. We hope you’ve enjoyed these few anecdotes from our long and colorful past. It was impossible to include every story told over the last four decades, but we’d love to share your memories as we fill in the details of the evolving legend of the Olympia Food Co-op. Again, please write to email@example.com with your submission to our documentary. Then join the 40th Anniversary Celebration and Annual Member Meeting on October 28th from 3 – 8 p.m. at the Olympia Center, 222 Columbia St. NW, in beautiful downtown Olympia. Enjoy food, prizes, entertainment, and our documentary screening.
We at the Olympia Food Co-op would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to all of our shoppers of the past 40 years, for dropping in for a carrot or a wedge of cheese; thank you to all of our working members – it is your time and dedication which allows us to succeed in our mission. Thank you to our membership, for participating in this grand experiment: giving feedback on the collective trajectory, bringing new ideas, shaping our cooperative identity, and consistently electing a conscientious Board of Directors that remains focused on our original mission. Finally, thank you to our local partners for allowing us to share your wares on our humble shelves, whether lovingly baked, brewed, fermented, crafted, steeped, aged, tinctured, or grown. We look forward to another 40 years of gratitude.
By Robyn Wagoner, Staff Member