Discovering how ‘co-op’ means ‘community’

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.

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Stopping in front of the Frontier Co-op bulk display during our visit to New Pioneer Co-op earlier this summer.

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.

Co-op principles

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. Continue reading

What makes co-ops great

By Alan Miles

When people ask me why I’ve stayed at Frontier Co-op so long (I’ve worked here more than 30 years), I tell them I enjoy working at a place that shares my values. And underpinning most of those values — such as our environmental and social responsibility, openness, integrity and fairness — is our cooperative business structure. I believe that being owned by our customers has been a key not only to our financial success, but to maintaining our values as well.

And people seem to agree. We recently found that most people — from regular customers to those who have never heard of us — react very positively to our being a co-op and assume we conduct business fairly. Co-ops have a great image with the public. It’s something they’ve earned by, for the most part, reflecting the society-strengthening values of their cooperative owners.

What makes co-ops great

In most ways, cooperatives are like other businesses. Their facilities and equipment are much like those of their competitors and, to be successful, the businesses must be run well. Co-ops are even incorporated in most cases, filing papers with the state as a specially structured corporation. There are bylaws and other necessary legal papers. There is a board of directors that sets policy and oversees the management that runs the day-to-day operations.

But co-ops are different in that they are owned and controlled (through the election of the Board) by members who have direct participation in the business. There are many types of co-ops, but often the participation is as a customer of the co-op — as it is with Frontier Co-op. Members of the co-ops collectively supply the capital the business needs and share its earnings.

A surprise rainstorm made leaving the temporary parking area of our 1983 Member Meeting a cooperative effort.

A surprise rainstorm made leaving the temporary parking area of our 1983 Member Meeting a cooperative effort — exemplifying what the co-op business structure is all about.

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Hearty, healthy and authentic: Growing up ‘co-op’

Maia Pugh at New Pioneer Food Co-op

Digging in at the bulk bins at my own local co-op, New Pioneer Food Co-op in Coralville, Iowa.

By Maia Pugh, Frontier Co-op marketing intern

I didn’t always feel lucky to be raised by parents who were concerned about the importance of wholesome, ethically sourced food.

My family lived in northeast Tennessee for the first ten years of my life, and we weren’t exactly surrounded by a booming community of people seeking to live “all-naturally.” I was likely the only one in my elementary school to have been born at home with the help of a midwife (whose small, organic farm we visited often), and certainly the only one whose placenta had been planted under an oak tree in the front yard. While other kids in my neighborhood learned how to train their talking Furbies and went on exhilarating adventures with Mario and his brothers, I learned how to tell an earthworm from a grub worm and helped my mom with the deliveries for her cloth diaper service.

When I went over to friends’ houses, I remember enviously browsing through what seemed like endless cupboards of delectable snack foods — Rice Krispies Treats, Doritos, Cocoa Puffs cereal and double-stuffed Oreos. At my house, we got organic carrot sticks and whole grain crackers with unsweetened peanut butter.

I didn’t look forward to my turn to bring refreshments to share at school. Why couldn’t my mom just get that all-natural, homemade Pop Tarts just weren’t as good as the real things, coated in high fructose corn syrup and vanilla frosting, and oozing with artificial cherry filling?!

Maia Pugh at La Montanita with Frontier Co-op spices

Pointing out my favorite spices during a visit to La Montanita Co-op in Santa Fe, New Mexico, this summer — proof that my family’s vacations always include at least one stop at a co-op!

My first co-op: La Montañita Co-op

When I was ten years old, my family moved from good ol’ rocky top country to “the city different” — better known as Santa Fe, New Mexico — where all things funky are eagerly embraced, and countless bumper stickers preach the importance of wholesome, natural living: “Let food be your medicine,” “Say no to GMOs,” “I’d rather be gardening,” and, my personal favorite, “Eat more kale.

After working in conventional retail food stores for more than twenty years, my dad had accepted a position as general manager of La Montañita Co-op in Albuquerque. Although my parents had always been committed to making sure the house was stocked with nutritious food, they hadn’t previously been members of a co-op.

I remember the first time I walked into La Montañita Co-op. Instead of the bright white floors and clean-cut symmetry of the conventional grocery stores, I was greeted by natural light streaming in through the large windows and a rustic, somewhat eclectic atmosphere of earthy colors and smells and light-hearted chit-chat between customers and employees.

I can’t say this very first experience brought some sort of overwhelming tidal wave of awe over me. I was, in fact, quite skeptical. Where were the service clerks in their pressed white shirts and ties and bright white smiles? Where were the big yellow signs screaming for my attention, “SALE! SALE! SALE!”? Where was the brightly colored candy aisle with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Skittles that never failed to trigger wide eyes and salivating cheek glands? And what on earth was all that food doing in huge plastic bins for people to just scoop out as they pleased?

But I do remember it feeling so real. So hearty and healthy and authentic. And over time, I stopped wishing for pressed white shirts and brightly colored candy aisles. Continue reading