A Co-op Retrospective

A Co-op Retrospective

Warren Palm
By: Cerrisa Snethen, Co-op Member/Owner

Compared to the size of the Oneota Co-op’s membership these days, those who were around then, and available now, to tell the organization’s creation story are relatively few. So in this, the Co-op’s fortieth year, we’ve arrived on the doorstep of an important idea: getting those rare and precious perspectives down.

If you ask a lot of us to sit down and list the most important institutions in Decorah, I bet a fair number of OCC member-owners would list both Oneota and Luther in their top five, if not top three. This is an article about a man who amplifies the connection between those two Decorah institutions beautifully. Warren Palm was gracious enough to join us in discussing the Co-op’s inception, the days when the Co-op wasn’t even a co-op per se, and how things have evolved in both his own life and the life of “the coop.”

We talk a lot about roots around here. Warren’s are really bunkered in Midwestern do-it-your-self-edness, and the post Depression and World War II era colliding with the counter-culture movement of the sixties. Born in 1949, Palm’s parents were affected deeply by the war and emphasized the practices of rationing, growing and conservation. Scarcity and personal values were encouraging families to watch waste and recycle. Warren has early memories of religiously sorting tin cans for recycling and hauling them to the garbage dump. “This was when garbage dumps were still called garbage dumps,” he emphasized, “before they became landfills.” Palm’s family routinely participated in paper drives orchestrated by local Boy Scout troops, saving and bagging pounds and pounds of newspaper and then bundling them twice a year. It was recycling before recycling was a buzz word in the era where most newspapers were actually in print instead of online. Warren remembers it fondly and has been a staunch recycler ever since.

Eight years younger than his only brother, Warren grew up in the west central town of Lake City, Iowa with politically and socially moderate parents. His folks were much older than typical parents of the time, and despite hailing from different decades, he bonded with his significantly older brother over things like baseball, regardless of ideological differences. He remembers helping with his parents’ garden, feasting on fresh green beans and his mother’s homemade rhubarb sauce. Coming of age in a more liberal decade than many of his Baby Boomer counterparts, Warren’s experience was somewhat distinctive. After all, his own Grandfather had travelled here from Norway, a man who was born when Lincoln was president. It turns out, that gave him a different perspective on history, on the Great Depression and World War II. Had his parents been the same younger ages of the other parents on the block, he might not have connected so deeply with an older generation gone by. Who knows? He might not have landed in Decorah.

After all, a search for higher education, combined with Warren’s family connection to Luther College, is what inevitably landed him on the Upper Iowa. Several of Palm’s family members went to Luther and if you can fathom it, his Aunt married a Luther graduate who was in the class of 1895. Warren’s mother’s older brother? Class of 1916. Palm arrived on campus with a certain sense of history, unofficially majoring in archeology (Luther didn’t actually have an archeology program at the time) with a formal major in economics. Getting married just before his senior year to a fellow student, Palm’s girlfriend-turned-wife was instrumental in getting him involved in the Co-op just as it was seeding. An artist and a painter, Palm’s then wife Susan Anderson’s health had led her on a journey toward natural food, and her budding relationship with the Co-op’s early buying club rubbed off on Warren. Despite the marriage ending, Palm remembers Anderson kindly and thinks it may have been her quest for healthier meals that helped her enjoy a longer life.

“We’d go up to St. Paul and stop at a co-op,” he remembers. The routine involved buying in bulk and contributing to the buying club’s early practice. The newlyweds moved out into rural Decorah’s Canoe Creek Road and began taking turns with several other households to store large bins of oats and barley, peanut butter and oil. Utilizing an Iowa City co-op as a distributor, as well as distributors in Minnesota, the group was keeping its pantries stocked by planning, organizing and distributing whole foods to its members. Warren remembers a loose rule where in buying club members would call ahead to see when would be a good time to stop and pick up supplies or wait until the weekend. He recalls the rolled oats, the flour, the brown rice, and how weekly there would sometimes be up to a dozen different available foods. He remembers getting more and more “into” the idea of creating a larger co-op with actual physical space, and how it was thrilling, yet frustrating.

The young scene in Decorah was a bustling one then. Warren says that living in the area felt fluid and stimulating, “There was always a feeling sort of like being on a vacation without leaving town because there were so many friends and interesting people coming through the area all the time.” He enjoyed playing host to similar-minded friends and visitors. Palm and his young wife began raising chickens, planted a large garden and got to work canning. He’s continued to can and preserve food for many years.

Eventually, Warren landed a job in Luther’s dining services, unloading food trucks and helping with ordering. He went on to become the director there. Palm would ultimately spend thirty-eight years working in Luther’s dining services–designing menus, ordering food from various vendors (including the Co-op), training and scheduling student workers and managing catering. Not surprisingly, given his roots and passions, Warren began a program emphasizing the nature of “home grown” meals in Luther’s cafeteria by asking students to get recipes from home, pass them on to the Luther kitchen, and then be served their parent’s own recipes for a taste of home. He began encouraging the utilization of more locally grown foods in the cafeteria, starting with things like tomatoes, Jim Steven’s local honey, and acorn squash. Sometimes striking deals just outside of the cafeteria loading doors and paying local growers with whatever petty cash was on hand.

Palm was one of the first to help in setting up the Co-op in its first actual space which was adjacent to the old “Ole’s Swap Shop.” He remembers the space’s pot belly stove and digging in to help clean. The place needed work. He remembers helping to haul in goods, and the first store not even having a door lock at the beginning. A few years later, Warren helped to move the growing Co-op into its new upstairs location in the Old Armory Building on Water Street.

“It was very gratifying and encouraging to see people get back to the land and be healthier,” he said. Warren was raised on a frugal food philosophy. “You did not waste food. Leftovers got served as leftovers or used in a casserole.” He’s been dismayed over the years at the wasteful direction in which American food culture has leaned. Working all those years to feed college students, the waste that took place often shook Palm to his core. He and his folks had seen food as precious, inherently valuable and something to be respected. He would shake his head in the college kitchen when locally harvested maple syrup would come back in pools on the plates of pancakes. He’s heartened that the local food movement and local ingredients are beginning to make people take another look at what’s for breakfast.

Happily, Palm’s food journey at Luther also took him (and the student body) to new culinary heights, thanks to the college’s increasingly diverse student population. Warren began integrating dishes submitted by students from other countries, giving rise to international cuisine and helping to put on the first “Ethnic Arts Festival.” He remembers going to prepare a dish called Tandori Chicken one year and having to hunt down an obscure ingredient called saffron, something so many of us now regularly use and take for granted. He remembers great menus and involving the students in the preparation. “There were maybe twenty of them in the kitchen, making meatballs, peeling plantains,” he smiled. Yes, Warren’s grateful for the exposure to so many diverse ingredients, many of which he special ordered via the Co-op!

Now, having retired and been married for thirty-one years, Palm’s living life away from the heat of the kitchen. Things are quiet. Living on the Upper Iowa River between the Upper and Lower Dam, Palm and wife Bunny maintain a love for good company and good food. While their kitchen is not entirely organic, and Bunny does most of the cooking, the couple love the Farmer’s Market and grow their own potted tomatoes. On their property, they’ve planted Fireside apple trees that actually hailed from the Co-op decades ago. They still grow their own eggplant and Palm continues to feel wholeheartedly supportive of the Co-op, its mission and operation. He remembers fondly when current Co-op GM, David Lester, once ran Marty’s Cafe at Luther and gave countless students and staff an education on “really, really good coffee.” He thinks our Co-op is lucky to have him.

When Warren summarizes the intersection of his life with the Co-op, and how he feels about where we’re headed, “I couldn’t be more pleased. It’s nice to see more locally grown and organic food around like this. I used to visit the LaCrosse Co-op and think ‘I wish ours was that nice.’ And now it is.” When Palm comes to the store now, he makes room for the important things– Middle Eastern spices reminiscent of days cooking up culture at Luther, chocolate for Bunny, and a root beer for the road.