Cooperative grocery stores are well suited to working with small- and medium-sized farms because their respective operations are similar in size. According to national averages, a cooperative grocery store works with 157 local farmers and producers, compared with 65 at a conventional store.
The effort to start a co-op in the Salt Lake area began in 2009, with a conversation between three colleagues who moved to Utah and were member-owners of grocery cooperatives where they lived previously. Because Salt Lake is such a vibrant community, they were surprised to discover that Salt Lake City didn't claim one of the 300-plus member-owned cooperative markets already operating in the U.S.
After numerous meetings with like-minded residents, ideas coalesced around improving access to excellent food by broadening the customer base of local farmers and creating community around food. Why not create a year-round, seven-days–a-week venue for local farmers and artisans to sell their products and be a place for people to gather?
Even before opening the store, the Co-op is in partnership with local farmers through "farm mobs" (volunteers help farmers with such critical projects as winterizing barns, clearing fields, building structures), promoting their farms through social media and sponsoring the Winter Market at the Rio Grande.
The greatest challenge the Co-op faces is at hand growing our member-owner base to 750 in order to enter into negotiations on a store site with strong financial backing. As we face this challenge, we find inspiration in the idea that supporting local co-ops is one of the strongest actions we as citizens can take to guard our food system, ensure humane treatment of animals and protect our Earth. The benefits to our farmers, the community and the environment allow us to use our money not only to meet our shopping needs but to enrich our entire community.
According to Bill Gessner, of CDS Consulting Co-op and a 30-year veteran of consulting services for more than 300 startup and existing co-ops, "For a food co-op to be competitively successful today, they need to be well-capitalized, well-managed, and anchored in a solid foundation of member ownership and governance."
In addition to the 300 operational co-ops, 150 co-op grocery stores are in various stages of development across the country. The Co-op is entering the planning portion of the second stage of its development: feasibility and planning. The closest co-ops to Salt Lake are in Moab and Pocatello, Idaho. Boise's co-op, with more than 29,000 active member-owners and two stores, shows what is possible when the community supports it.
Following one of the seven principles that all cooperatives uphold voluntary and open membership all Utahns can be member-owners of the Co-op by making a one-time equity investment of $300. Current member-owners live in nine Utah counties stretching from Cache to Iron and from Salt Lake to Uintah.
Visit www.wasatch.coop.com or the Co-op's Facebook page for more information and get involved.
Thom Benedict, Beth Blattenberger, Stephanie Buranek, Candace Cady, Jodie Grant, Benjamin Jordan, Barbara Pioli, Allen Stutz and Erin Whitelock are members of the board of directors of Wasatch Cooperative Market.