2012 has been declared the International Year of the Co-op by the United Nations General Assembly and now is Salem’s chance to act.

Several dozen interested community members met on Feb 21 to discuss a potential food co-op in Salem. Participants were community activists, farmers, and long-time residents as well as new arrivals and ranged in age from their twenties to seventies. Kerry Topel, environmental educator and new executive director of Oregon Peaceworks, moderated the discussion.

The presentation included slides of possible sites under consideration and a list of nearly 50 local wholesale organic and natural producers in the area. Topel, along with Debra Edwards and Cindy Kimball, have been meeting since October to plan the co-op. The first meeting was held to gauge community interest and to involve Salem resi dents in the next stage including fundraising, outreach and planning.

“Currently we in Salem are overly dependent upon food shipped and trucked in when we are literally surrounded by amazing locally produced food,” Topel said, referring to the fertility and abundance of the Willamette Valley. “We’ll increase the quality and diversity of locally produced food through recognizing the amazing resources we have right here.”

“People are more aware and concerned about what they are eating,” Kimball, who has studied nutrition, says. “People don’t want huge corporations to control what they eat and their access to food.” She mentions concerns with genetically modified foods and the huge recalls of tainted foods in recent years from large farms.

“Portland has a co-op, Corvallis has a co-op; Salem is ripe for the picking,” said Debra Edwards. The area has a population of 300,000 that could potentially support a co-op, she says.

In contrast to a corporation or for-profit business,  a co-op is owned and democratically controlled by its members. It is motivated not by profit but to serve members’ needs with affordable and high quality goods and services. There are 300 retail food co-ops in the US currently and 200 groups are now organizing to form co-ops across the country, according to the Food Co-op Initiative.

The enthusiastic reception was summed up by a member in the audience. He said that though he belongs to a CSA with Afton Field Farms (pasture-fed beef in Corvallis), he wants an actual brick-and-mortar location for the community it would provide. “There’s no problem being able to get organic food, but a meeting place is what’s lacking in Salem…”  A community space could provide education on nutrition and gardening; for example, a demonstration on what to do with kohlrabi (a winter vegetable). The activity would in turn generate interest and demand for co-op products.

CSA, or community-supported agriculture, is one way a farm can survive. It allows members to participate by purchasing a share in a farm in exchange for the delivery of a weekly box of produce.

Third-generation farmer Elizabeth Miller of Minto Island Growers said that a co-op could benefit her by providing a consistent market. Currently she relies partly on the Saturday Market which is “speculative,” she says. “You pick what you think is going to sell… and if it’s greens… all the lettuce that doesn’t sell wilts.” Miller says she ends up composting as much as 20% of what she brings to market in addition to the overhead of picking and staffing the booth.

Sloan Aagaard of Teal Creek Farms said that a co-op would allow local farmers to cooperate and coordinate with each other according to their specialties and micro-climates and also allow flexibility with different production yields affected by weather or pests. As her farm is in the coast range, she is able to provide certain varieties at different times than a farm that is in the valley.

Debra Edwards, said that a co-op could potentially contract with individual wholesalers so that a farmer could develop a specific niche based on what they grew successfully. They could suggest different varieties of a pepper, for instance, so that different farms could contribute different varieties of the same crop or vegetable. A farmer could count on a consistent market and not have to compete. Edwards serves on the board of Salem Public Market, the oldest continuously running farmers’ market in Oregon, since 1943. In this capacity, while applying for federal grants, she identified food deserts in Salem. Food deserts are typically low-income areas in inner cities with no accessible or affordable places to buy nutritious food. As a result, low-income families and minorities are often more prone to health risks related to diet such as diabetes and heart attacks.One of the prospective locations for the co-op is near a food desert.

If a co-op is to survive it’s important to consider the context of the larger community, according to longtime Salem resident Pamela Lyons-Nelson. Lyons-Nelson remembers the original Salem food co-op, called the Salem Community Food Store, which was founded around 1969 and lasted about ten years. Then Heliotrope drew on the same customer base of those interested in natural and organic food but did not survive because of the failure of an expansion as well as competition from retail outlets like Fred Meyer. Lyons-Nelson believes that a new food co-op would need to reach beyond potential members and the progressive community to include such segments as community gardens, the faith community and Marion-Polk Food Share. “The co-op needs to present itself as the best source for local food and appeal not to just those who are members and volunteers but to the wider community.” For instance, First Alternative co-op in Corvallis gets 50% of its business from nonmembers, according to general manager Cindee Lolik.

Ben Martin-Horst, the grocery manager at LifeSource, the well-respected natural food store on Commercial St., said that he enthusiastically welcomes the food co-op. “LifeSource is limited in our ability to foster local and organic foods,” said Martin-Horst, and he is “looking forward to being able to collaborate with the food co-op.”

In keeping with the co-op’s mission to provide local, sustainable, organic and natural food and goods, it would focus on what is in season rather than the range of items available in a store such as LifeSource and “seasonless”commodities like oranges, bananas or mangoes, for instance. Access is the key and people are hungry for real food. Elizabeth Miller of Minto Island Growers described the response to “over-wintered” vegetables which she brought to market last spring. Even though the root vegetables were not “beautiful or picked yesterday” or like something you would see in a supermarket, customers could not get enough, Miller said.

Cindee Lolick, general manager of First Alternative Co-op in Corvallis, says that a co-op is a great way for people locally and worldwide to reduce their reliance on  multinationals and big corporations. She cited a study from Austin, Texas which says that for every $100 spent locally in a business like a co-op, 45% remains in the community, in contrast to $100 spent in a big box store where only 13% would stay in the community. First Alternative, serving as mentor to the fledgling Salem co-op, started in 1970 in a small house and now has two locations and 7800 members.

According to a 2005 study, nearly 30,000 cooperatives of all kinds account for nearly $654 billion in revenue and over 2 million jobs in the United States. Over 800 million people are members of co-operatives and co-operatives provide 100 million jobs worldwide, 20% more than multinational enterprises (from International Co-operative Alliance).

“Besides bringing jobs to Salem through the hiring of employees at the store, we will be able to retain and grow the amount of local jobs of various producers who could supply the co-op. Additionally, there is the recruitment and retention of young Salemites because of the ‘draw’ of a co-op in our community. And lastly, the co-op pays taxes, banks and circulates cash within the community, adding to the economic enrichment of Salem as a whole,” says Edwards.

The Salem food co-op is being born in the context of what some think is a new economy. “The old one is not coming back,” observed John Gear, local attorney who was at the community meeting. He thinks that if we can create “a more resilient food system in the heart of the Willamette Valley” as we look toward ”an increasingly difficult future…” and  “improve and strengthen our food system here where we live… that’s a blessing.”

But as Cindy Kimball remarked: “It’s not going to happen if people don’t make it happen; people have to step up and get involved.”
For more information or to volunteer, contact foodcoopsalem@gmail.com.