Before dawn on a Thursday morning, a half-dozen bleary-eyed folks make their way to a small warehouse in industrial Salem, where several pallets of dry staples and a small mountain of fresh, Willamette Valley-grown produce await them. They will spend the next several hours splitting hundred pound sacks of brown rice into 5- and 10 pound amounts, bagging mushrooms and kale, measuring out organic lentils and divvying up cartons of bottled olive oil and honey. Starting at 5 pm, their customers – members of the Salem Food Co-op –will stop by to pick up their orders of good, healthy food – purchased for only 30%-35% above wholesale prices, thanks to the hours of dedicated volunteer labor.
The Salem Food Co-op is the first rung on what the Coop board members hope will be a ladder to an eventual store front. It’s been slightly over a year since Cindy Kimball, Debra Edwards and Kerry Topel started meeting and discussing their dream of a Salem Food Coop – a member-owned cooperative food store that would provide local, fresh, non-GMO, pesticide –free, reasonably priced groceries to the people of Salem. Since that time, they have gathered together an enthusiastic group of board members who have written mission and vision statements, adopted by-laws and a sourcing and selection policy, have taken on the food club, and are wrestling with a business plan. They have a Web page, a Facebook page, and a brochure all sporting their colorful logo – the Oregon state capitol building ,built of vegetables.
All board decisions are made through consensus; all board members are passionate about food in their own individual ways, which makes for some lengthy discussions. Some place the most value on locally-grown produce, to others, organic and GMO-free are of first importance. The board discusses the various merits of gluten-free pasta, vegetarian diets, and grass-fed meat and dairy.
How shall we define local? Should bees be fed high-fructose corn syrup in the winter?
Sometimes the job seems overwhelming. “So much of our energy goes into keeping the food club supplied, we don’t have as much time as we would like to focus on writing our business plan and finding investors” says Cindy Kimball. Right now, the Co-op uses space donated twice a month by board members – but the situation is not ideal, as supplies and equipment need to be stored elsewhere due to space constraints, and room for refrigerated items is minimal. Currently, The Salem Food Co-op provides staples once monthly, local produce twice monthly, and will begin selling some dairy products in May. “We need our own space in order to grow our business,” says Sue Stoner, board president, “but we aren’t making enough money with the customers we have right now to afford rent. We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
Even with the struggles inherent in starting a new business, Salem Food Coop board members are excited about the future. Plans include not only a “brick and mortar” food and community center, but a mobile grocery store – a food truck to service the Salem neighborhoods determined to be “food deserts,” areas in which access to good, healthy food is difficult and the nearest grocery may be only a corner convenience store.
“Now is the right time for this business. Everyone we talk to is supportive and interested,” says Cindy. Salem Food Coop members don’t see themselves as competing with established local stores such as Roth’s and LifeSource or the Salem farmer’s markets. “More and more people are interested in eating healthfully and locally,” Debra Edwards says. “If we grow our customer base, theirs will grow as well.“
The Salem Food Coop board is celebrating its one-year anniversary and all that has been accomplished so far. Their Annual Meeting is scheduled for Tuesday May 21, at the Grand Theater, for members and the interested public. The evening begins at 6:30 and everyone is welcome to enjoy a tasting of local food and beverages, to mingle with friends, meet the board and share ideas. There will be a presentation “Planting our Local Roots” from 7-8 pm. For more information find The Salem Food Coop on Facebook or at salemfoodcoop.org.
10 places to buy locally-grown Willamette Valley products in Salem
1. CSAs – Community Support Agriculture – weekly produce boxes available from many local growers. Find them at www.ecovian.com/s/salem/csa
2. EZ Orchards
3. LifeSource Natural Foods
4. Minto Island Farm Stand
5. Pick your own farms. Find them at www.pickyourown.org/ORsalem.htm
6. Roth’s Markets
7. Salem Food Coop
8. Salem Public Market
9. Salem Saturday Market
10. Wednesday Market
We hear a rumor that a summer Thursday Evening Market is in the works!
Restaurants that serve local foods
Ameadeus – opening in its new downtown location in May
Rafn’s (opening soon)
We don’t mean to leave anyone out. If you grow, market, or serve locally-grown food and drink in the Salem area, let us know.