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Op-ed: For us, democracy in action means starting a co-op market

Published March 11, 2017 3:00 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Democracy in action can take many forms. For more than 450 Utahns, it is investing in Wasatch Cooperative Market (the Co-op), a start-up company that strictly maintains a one-member-owner, one-vote control of decision making. Our shared vision is to open a community-owned, full-service grocery store in the Salt Lake area.

According to Salt Lake City's 2013 Community Food Assessment, "small and medium growers are sometimes frustrated by a host of external constraints that are barriers to expanding the flow of local food within the community. … Small and medium-sized regional growers face the demand of bringing their own product directly to market." The study also cites that "identifying ways to bring more local food to Salt Lake City customers is an important step in strengthening the food system."

As a full-service store, the Co-op will be in a position to fill this need. While community-supported agriculture and farmers markets have greatly increased interest in local products, the Co-op, as a professionally run store dedicated to contracting with local growers and offering the same hours and accessibility as conventional grocery stores, will vastly expand access of local products to shoppers.



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.

 

 

 

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