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With community gardening catching on, Barbara Pioli thinks now's the right time to take the next step toward building a sustainable urban farming system.
She is spearheading the creation of the Wasatch Cooperative Market, a member-owned grocery store that could be an outlet for local growers to sell merchandise.
"Co-ops work with local startups to help them grow," said Pioli, a Wasatch Cooperative Market trustee and the group's interim development coordinator when she's not teaching as an adjunct professor at Westminster College of Salt Lake City. "This commitment to support small, local farmers is integral to growing the local food economy."
The Co-op Market's six-member board is looking to attract about 500 "member-owners," each willing to invest $300 to complete marketing and feasibility studies and to find a suitable site for what Pioli described as an "old-fashioned corner food market."
She told the Salt Lake County Council, which has an active urban farming initiative, that 180 owner-members are on board already and that the campaign to fill the ranks and attract more outside funding is in full swing, including a membership-drive event 3-5 p.m. Saturday at Pago restaurant, 878 S. 900 East.
Getting a market off the ground will not be easy, Pioli acknowledged.
The Salt Lake Valley's retail food market is competitive, she said, particularly considering the lack of exposure Utahns have to the cooperative concept. Pioli said Utah is one of only three states nationally Alaska and Oklahoma are the others that do not have a grocery co-op.
But she has no doubts that co-op ideals appeal to many people eager, as the group's website says, to "promote sustainable agriculture and help preserve the rural landscape and heritage of our state."
In an effort to keep that heritage alive, 38 community gardens have sprouted in Salt Lake County, said Julie Peck-Dabling, the county's open-space program manager. Three commercial farms operating on 15 acres of leased county lands produced more than 100,000 pounds of food last year. Project participants included refugees and jail inmates.
While a co-op market would buy products from far and wide to meet customer demand, it would rely heavily on these local commercial farms and gardens, said Seth Marcantonio, a board member who also operates a cooperative market in Massachusetts.
Last year, "85 percent of the food in my produce department came from within 20 miles," he noted, adding that his store provided jobs with "living wages and benefits" to locals, offered nutritional consultations and did outreach work into underserved neighborhoods.
"We see ourselves as a key link in what the county is trying to do in building a local food economy," Marcantonio told the council.
On average, Pioli added, cooperative markets have contracts to buy goods from about 150 growers. Conventional stores have closer to 65, she said, often because their business models require larger bulk orders than local growers can fulfill.
Ever eager to tout the urban farming initiative, Councilman Jim Bradley applauded the cooperative market idea. "This is part of the continuum" toward realizing the goal of preserving agricultural lands, he said, and meeting the nutritional needs of current and future generations.
I Locally grown food will be featured from 3-5 p.m. Saturday at Pago restaurant, 878 S. 900 East, Salt Lake City, in a membership drive event for the Wasatch Cooperative Market. Beehive Cheese, Clifford Farm and Frog Bench Farms are among the providers and the kind of folks whose produce could be sold at the market. Reservations are being accepted at firstname.lastname@example.org.