Co-op Local: What Does That Mean?
Walking into the Olympia Food Co-op is like walking into a community center – Elders chat in the cashier lines, neighbors wave hello, and friends who have been meaning to touch base block the produce aisle, catching up. Our stores are the living, pumping, sometimes hectic heart of our community. The Olympia Food Co-op epitomizes local, not just because it is the place where everybody runs into each other, but because local is the blood that keeps it alive. Policies supporting local food producers are part of the Co-op’s mission statement and purchasing guidelines, and are implemented through our Local Farms program, the workings of the Local Products Committee, and day-to-day buying decisions of department managers on the floor. All of this work has a tremendously strengthening effect on our local producers, helping them grow and change to meet the needs of our community, and giving them a dependable market for their products. In turn, our community benefits from having a flexible, viable local food production infrastructure, and increased employment opportunities. In such uncertain times, the stability a strong community brings is invaluable.
So, first off, how does our Co-op define a local food producer? With so many grocery chains bandying about the term “local” for marketing purposes these days, it’s hard to see what sets the Olympia Food Co-op’s commitment to buying local apart. Here at the Co-op we define local as a food producer (farms included) located within Thurston, Mason, Lewis, Pierce, and Grays Harbor counties, that sells its products directly to us, without the use of a third party wholesaler. This means person-to-person interaction, we know our producers by name and face, and they bring their products directly through our warehouse doors.
Part of our mission statement outlines our purpose to contribute to the health and well being of people by providing wholesome foods through a locally-driven cooperative organization, which supports local production. We carry this out in a number of ways. The Local Products Committee of our Board, with membership made up of community members, food producers, and staff workers, serves our mission by strengthening ties between the Co-op and local producers. This group hosts the annual Local Eats celebration, and brings demos of outstanding local products into the stores monthly. We have our Local Farms Committee, which meets with all of our local farmers in the winter months to plan out the entire next year’s growing season. This group is the reason why we are the only grocery store in town selling local carrots clear into January, and why our produce department boasts over 20% local during the growing season; who else can say that? Our managers on the floor follow product selection guidelines that favor buying directly from local vendors, as part of a long–range plan to increase support for local businesses and organizations. Westside dairy manager Josh Elliott talks about his commitment to carrying local products: ”I strive to have as many locally produced products as I can for a few reasons – locally produced food keeps money in our community. The less distance food has to travel to get to our membership, the smaller impact on the ecosystems. And, the more food that is being produced locally, then well, the more food our community has access to.”
This year, as part of celebrating The Olympia Food Co-op’s 40th year bringing great food to the Olympia community, we are kicking off a campaign called “40 Years of Co-op Local”, highlighting our outstanding local food producers with spotlight posters in the stores, more demos, and videos on our website. We intend to spread awareness to all our shoppers and the community–at–large about specific local producers and what makes them so vital to us all, and how we at the Co-op serve to strengthen our community through work on the local level.
The effect of this work is palpable. Every department in our store highlights locally produced foods, our dairy cases fairly burst with local options for milk, yogurt, kraut, and kombucha. As a shopper, I love the fact that I can find all these great local products in one store. In Josh’s experience, the relationship often gives local producers a needed entrance into the marketplace. “Often times, we are the first place folks (local producers) get their stuff on the shelf. In dairy West, about one third of our selection is local and direct. It makes me really happy when a relationship with a local vendor takes off and we start to see their product in other stores.”
Local businesses, especially those just starting out, benefit significantly from the Co-op’s directed efforts. Habib Serhan, whose company Exquisite N’ Traditional has been doing business with the Co-op since 2011, is responsible for the wonderful Hummus and Rawmus that graces our “Grab and Go” coolers, as well as Baba Ghannouj, Tiramisu, Baklava, and a host of other lovingly crafted foods. “Initially we started our business partnership with the Co-op with the baklava product. Over the years, trust has grown, and, through various demos we held, our product line has grown to include over 15 products.” He went on to say, “…the support has given us a continuous boost of energy that is keeping us motivated to handcraft additional exquisite delicacies.”
Black Hills Microgreens, a local farm that grows nutritionally powerful and delicately beautiful pea shoots, sunflower shoots, and a number of brassica shoots including red cabbage, toscano kale and diakon radish, delivers to the produce department of both stores twice weekly. Karl Schaffner, farmer/owner of Black Hills Microgreens, said this, when asked about his relationship with the Co-op, “Oly Food Co-op was our first steady account and in that, very important in our development. Our relationship has definitely grown – I feel we have an excellent connection and you guys understand the intricacies of our production, while I understand your process and needs.”
Our commitment to local food producers goes deeper than just buying food to fill our shelves. When local kombucha maker Magic Kombucha suffered a devastating warehouse fire, staff workers quickly stepped in to create a round-up button in our point-of-sale system, so customers can easily donate to the rebuilding fund when checking-out. And you can be sure, when Magic starts bottling again, it will have a big space in our coolers.
Through the enactment of carefully crafted policies grown from grass-roots ideals, the Olympia Food Co-op is community in action. The money flows thru us and keeps circulating here, many of our food producers are our shoppers as well. It’s a common sight, to see a local vendor step out of the warehouse and onto the floor after delivering their products, to get a little shopping done. We provide local producers with a dependable market for their wares, a viable income, and our shoppers get easy access to a myriad of lovely local gems. Together we build a strong local food network, a stronger community, and fill our bellies with nutritious, delicious food. 40 years committed to local, and going strong!
By Hathor Vergotis