March 19th, 2009
The Utah Food co-op is providing fresh quality produce and high quality food all while saving families from public assistance.
by Rebecca Edwards
“If you eat, you qualify” is the motto of The Community Food Co-op of Utah. The Co-op, which is entering its fourth year, is a recently-discovered gem for Utahns like me who have been doing everything they can to avoid having to resort to Wal-Mart as a means of feeding their families.
“You’ll never believe the food I just got for twenty-three dollars,” my friend, Shalamar Morrill, told me over the phone. She proceeded to list off the items she had just brought home which included: steaks, chicken, hamburger, artichokes, kiwis, rice, and even Stone Ground whole-wheat bread. My head was spinning–how was this possible? Shalamar proceeded to tell me that she had joined the Food Co-op. My experience with co-ops has been limited to high-end, expensive, organic shops that provide wonderful merchandise but charge you an arm and a leg for it (even after a hefty membership fee!). I had to learn more.
Established by Crossroads Urban Center to address the problem of “food insecurity” the Co-op currently provides high-quality, locally-supported meats, produce, dry goods, and other food products to approximately 9,000 members across the Wasatch front.
“Utah is toward the top of the nation–in the top five or so–in food insecurity,” Bill Germundson, Assistant Director of the Co-op said. “This isn’t people who are starving. Food insecurity means people are wondering where their next meal is coming from.”
In a state that seems so self-sufficient and has been able to remain far behind the national unemployment rate, it can be difficult to understand why Utah has so many people wondering about their next meal. Project Director George Neckel explains it this way, “It’s true that Utah looks good in terms of unemployment, but the cost of living here is slightly higher than the national average, while the wages are definitely lower. It’s a contradiction.”
One of the reasons Crossroads started the Utah Community Food Co-op was because they began seeing more and more working families in line at their food pantry. “They really identified an unmet need,” Germundson said. Food pantries are designed to provide emergency food supplies, not be an alternative to expensive grocery stores. “Pantries provide a lot of canned food or packaged food, basically a lot of junk food.” The Co-op became the answer to bridging the gap between emergency need for displaced and/or unemployed families, with fresh quality produce, meat and grains from local providers.
George Neckel of Utah Community Food Co-op
But also unlike the food pantries three is no requirement to demonstrate that a need for assistance. “We take [food stamp] Cards and Platinum Mastercards, it doesn’t matter how you pay or how much you make, everyone is welcome to join, said Nickel.”
There are also no mandatory membership dues. The only requirement, other than eating, is to commit to doing at least two hours of community service per month–and raking your neighbor’s leaves or shoveling their sidewalk counts! With a mission that combines to “provide nutritious food at 30 to 50% savings through collective purchasing” and “build a sense of community by bringing people together to work towards a common purpose,” the Co-op is open to anyone and everyone who eats and is part of the Salt Lake Valley community.
“You don’t know if the person next to you is on food stamps or if the Mercedes in the parking lot is theirs,” Neckel said. One of the things that the Co-op is most proud of is its ability to bring people together regardless of religious, political, or economic factors.
“Everyone can talk about food,” Neckel continued, “We hear people talking about recipes, gardening–things that cross all of those lines that normally keep people apart.”
During a time when few people feel secure in their financial footing and most of us are looking for ways to cut expenses, the Co-op offers a means to provide fresh, high-quality meals to your family and keep your dignity.
“One of my friends’ husbands recently lost his job,” Morrill said. “They have four kids and she was stressing about how they were going to survive. I told her about the Co-op and she joined. It has made a huge difference. We’re both telling everyone we know about this–they should hire us to do publicity,” Morrill said with a laugh.
Joining the Co-op is as easy as making your first food order. Order forms can be found on the Co-op website or in their monthly newsletter. They accept all forms of payment, including food stamps, and orders can be made in person, by phone, mail, or fax. Online capabilities are in the works, and hopes are that it will be set up very soon. Members are encouraged to make a one-time, membership contribution of as little as $5, but if someone can’t do that they can still make their food order and become a lifetime member.
“We don’t want to put any stumbling blocks in the way of people who want to join,” Germundson said. “We exist to serve people and to build communities.”
After making your food selection, the next step is choosing a team site. There are 60 team sites from Ogden to Park City to Provo. Co-op members also belong to a “team” of other members in their chosen area. Co-op teams are volunteer-led, community-based groups that are sponsored by organizations that offer their space to use as a “team site” on distribution day (otherwise known as D-day). Teams are open to everyone, so you don’t need to be a member of a sponsoring organization to be part of a team.
“One of our strengths is bringing people together who normally wouldn’t work together,” Germundson explained, “At a bagging party or on D-day I can hear 20 different conversations among new people and regulars. It’s a win-win. People are helping themselves by getting groceries that cost less and also helping other people through the culture of volunteerism the Co-op creates.”
Neckel does the bulk of the buying with local farmers like East Farms and Tagge Famous Fruits and local companies like Nutty Guys, Palace Meat Co., and Colosimo’s Sausage. Neckel also tries to buy organic and fair trade products as often as he can.
“There are certain groups who want their food share to be 100% organic,” he said, “But we just can’t provide that. Our goal is the provide the best quality locally-grown and supported food for the best price out there. With the size of our membership, we can’t always provide everyone’s first choice, but I try to keep variety in the produce offered and we have fair trade teas and coffees available every month.” In fact, the need is so large that when the Co-op first approached East Farms, East had to combine with his neighbor to meet the demand.
Quality was a concern my friend Shalamar had when she picked up her first food share. She said that the produce looked really good, but “we’ll have to wait and see about the meat.” Three weeks later this was her report, “The food is excellent. I have a hard time buying fruits and vegetables because they always go bad before I use them–but the food from the Co-op is the freshest I think I’ve ever had. Nothing even started to go bad before I had time to cook it.”
She also reported that the meat was great and she enjoyed the “grab bag” feel of the fruits and vegetables. “You don’t know what you’re getting in advance, so when I found out that I had artichokes I was really excited, but I’d never cooked an artichoke before. It was a chance for me to learn something new and try something different.”
As I sat with Neckel and Germundson I started to wonder what the catch was. The Co-op is very affordable, by all reports the food is superb, the community action initiative is working, and local farmers and business are being supported. It sounds like one of those things that is too good to be true.
Germundson laughed when I shared my skepticism, “People always ask ‘what’s the downside?’ And I always tell them there is none.”
To find out more about the Co-op, join, or find a volunteer opportunity, go to their website at www.crossroads-u-c.org.
What a ray of hope in dire times. Great story ” A Weeks Groceries For Around $20.00″ . Wish we had one where we live.