By Kailee Meskimen
Stepping foot into my local food co-op, New Pioneer Co-op, for the first time earlier this year made me feel alive again. Rainbows of local produce as far as the eye could see, a make-your-own nut butter station and a tall display of more spices, herbs and teas than I could imagine (even working at Frontier!). Grass-fed beef and cage-free eggs surrounded by towers of natural care products and organic snacks. A scratch bakery and sandwich bar that produced the most heavenly aromas. Passerby shoppers smiling and suggesting their tried-and-true favorites.
Food co-ops hold a whole new meaning for me now — community. Living in Iowa, we boast some of the world’s most fertile soil, yet, unfortunately, we are surrounded by genetically-modified crops and supermarkets filled with processed foods. Finding organic and locally-produced food is like searching for a needle in a haystack, unless you make it to the weekly farmer’s market, join a CSA or grow it yourself. Although supermarkets are striving to provide more organic and natural products, I discovered the day I visited New Pioneer why food co-ops are the go-to place and why that community is so special.
The food co-op community begins with an established set of principles. According to the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA) consumer website, “unlike their conventional counterparts, co-ops are owned and governed by member-shoppers and rooted in principles like community, voluntary and open membership, economic participation and cooperation. Because of these principles and practices, food co-ops inherently serve and benefit the communities where they are located.” Co-ops partner with local farms to offer consumers fresh and wholesome food. When you shop at the co-op, you help support sustainable production methods and feel good about doing it. By becoming a member, you not only feel good investing in a community-owned business, but you have the opportunity to vote and voice your opinion.
What I found fascinating about New Pioneer is the pride the co-op takes in serving our community and its active involvement in issues, causes and events supported by its owners. The co-op does this in part by contributing to fundraisers for local organizations that address human needs. One cause in particular that resonates with me as a Frontier Co-op employee is supporting numerous community and school gardens. Teaching our community members, young and old, to not only eat organic foods, but also grow organic helps build a sense of pride in making healthy choice. In addition, New Pioneer encourages their members to give back to the community by assisting at specified local non-profits.
Bringing the community together
I try to shop locally when I can. Whether it be food, clothes or trinkets, I find meaning behind it. It’s sustainable, practical and important for me to know I’m making a difference in my life and the lives of others. Additionally, knowing that I’m choosing foods that are good for me, the environment and our local Iowa farmers is a powerful realization.
Food co-ops are an easy way to shop locally. On average, $0.38 of every dollar spent at the co-op goes straight back to support the local economy, compared to just $0.24 from conventional grocery stores. Putting more money into the pockets of local, organic farmers and other producers has an unbelievable ripple effect — and sometimes it takes hearing their stories to fully grasp it. Everywhere I turned at the co-op, I saw a photo of a local farmer with his or her story. I love knowing exactly where a product is from and how it was grown, and seeing the face of the person responsible for growing it. Co-ops pride themselves on partnering with local farmers, an each one of those farmers brings the community together.
Above and beyond the sustainability norm
Co-ops go above and beyond the grocery industry norm when it comes to sustainability. Instead of gravitating towards the endless rolls of plastic bags hanging by the produce, you may see co-op shoppers bring in their own bags, jars or bottles and reuse them. Co-op members tend to be more conscious as more bags only means more waste. I found it very inspiring that I saw more compost bins than trash cans. I saw shoppers throw apple cores, paper plates and even silverware (yes, disposable silverware can be compostable, too) in these bins. New Pioneer truly practices what they preach, right down to waste.
Having a vibrant food co-op community nearby also makes choosing organic a whole lot easier. After discovering organic food for the first time, I have vowed to never go back to conventional (if you’ve never tried a fresh, organic cherry, you’ve been missing out). There is nothing artificial or modified about eating real, wholesome food. And in return, I’m doing the environment a favor by purchasing produce without harsh chemicals, pesticides or hormones.
Not just a co-op
At a food co-op, you won’t meet just any part-time employee. You’ll see dedicated, educated and inspiring people (many of whom work full-time) with exceptional work ethics and dedication to quality. Each employee I spoke with at New Pioneer offered me nothing but great customer service, all while promoting and speaking highly of the products they sold. I could really tell people were happy and thoroughly loved where they worked. According to NCGA, co-op employees nationally also earn $1.00 more than hour on average than conventional supermarket workers. To me, that’s worth every penny spent.
Co-op communities make sense to me to me now. A food co-op is a place that sells organic, natural and sustainable food, yes, but it is also a way of life. Co-ops bolster local farmers and food producers by providing a market and support for their products. They build long-standing relationships based off of trust and ethics, not greed. Customers are more than just members — they believe in and work for a better tomorrow for our local community, nation and planet.
If you’ve never stepped foot in a co-op before, I encourage you to go and peruse the aisles and spend some time soaking it in. And if you’ve been a long-time member, be sure not to take the little things for granted. You’re part of something much bigger — not just a co-op, but a community.
What was your first experience at a co-op like?
About the author: Kailee Meskimen is a content management specialist for Frontier, Simply Organic and Aura Cacia — allowing her to immerse herself in the world of organic living every day. In her free time, she enjoys experimenting in the kitchen, going for long walks with her dog and traveling the world.