Cooperative Roots Organic Fruits… of our Labor

Cooperative Roots Organic Fruits… of our Labor

by Nate Furler, Marketing and Outreach Manager

The coming year, 2014, will mark forty years of business for the Oneota Community Food Co-op. And unlike many who dread the passing of forty years, we are ready to celebrate where we’ve been, what we’ve become, and where we are going. But first, let’s take a look back and check out from where we came.

The Co-op started in 1972 as an informal group of people making trips to Iowa City and Minneapolis to purchase natural foods in bulk. The group went on to form the Oneota Food Buying Club in 1973. Food was stored in members’ houses, but interest and participation in the buying club quickly grew and 1974 saw the incorporation of an Oneota storefront at 1007 Paine Street, Decorah. At that time only members were allowed to shop, and all members were required to volunteer in the store. “Oleville,” the nickname given to the store in honor of landlord Ole Youmans, was a distribution network for honey, beans and products not otherwise available locally.

In 1978 the Co-op moved to the second floor of the old Armory building at 421 West Water Street, Decorah. Benefit dances were held to raise funds for the move, and sales were extended to include non-members in order to increase business. The ordering, inventory control, cashiering and bookkeeping soon became too much for one person to handle. In 1981 the Board accepted a proposal for a collective management to replace the previous arrangement of one store manager. Fluctuating between four and six members, the new system offered an opportunity for diverse leadership to represent a broad public interest.

Given the inconvenience of the Armory’s upstairs location and continued sales growth, the Coop enthusiastically relocated to 521 West Water Street, Decorah in 1984. Another big change came about in 1987 when the Board approved a proposal instituting the current membership share system. The proposal called for members to purchase one share of stock valued at $140 to be paid in full or in annual installments of $20. This new system replaced the annual membership fee and gave the Co-op a “nest egg” with which to approach lending institutions for capital improvements.

In 1994 the Co-op moved to 415 West Water Street, Decorah. During the 13 years spent there, membership grew from 200 to roughly 2,000; sales grew from $436,000 to $2 million/year, and the staff grew in number from 6 to 42. It was at this location that the Co-op was able to more fully realize its mission to provide access to locally-produced food, as the pool of producers grew to meet the increasing demand of Co-opmember/owners. Also during these years the Co-op began collaboration with a variety of regional organizations that had come to have similar interest in promotinglocal sustainable agriculture, such as ISU Extension, the Chamber of Commerce, Luther College, and local commodity producers, as well as the Farmer’s Market and

Community Supported Agriculture.

In January of 2008 the Co-op moved to its 5th and current location at 312 West Water Street, Decorah.

This space is the former location of the Fareway Grocery Store. Imagine– when the Co-op first opened its storefront at Oleville in 1974, Fareway was the biggest grocery store in town, and now it is just enough space for us.

These three-plus decades have seen the Co-op grow from a small buying club of a few like-minded individuals to a large storefront owned by a diverse membership. The store today features Northeast Iowa’s largest selection of bulk foods, as well as a wide variety of produce, nutritional supplements, body care items, packaged and frozen foods, and a cafe that will knock your socks off. It also carries local, regional, and globally made fair trade and sustainable gifts and publications.

Oneota Community Food Co-op has had a significant and lasting impact on our local economy and agriculture, thanks to the vision and commitment of thousands of people, including member-owners, board, and staff.

We have some special things plannedthroughout the coming year. Ourlogo has undergone an update andwill be featured on beautiful commemorativeceramic mugs availablefor purchase starting this December.We’ll also have some branded apparel  – including t-shirts and hoodies – available very soon. In January, we’ll be kicking off with a celebration that will include cake from the WaterStreet Cafe, with special invitation being sent to former board members— past and present—to attend. We’ll also have old photos on display with the hope that names and stories from moments past can be documented for archival purposes.

This year’s annual meeting of the membership, scheduled for Thursday, April 10th, will feature fine foods catered by local Trout River Catering and Ruth Hampton. Following the meal will be the annual meeting proceedings and then the viewing of a documentary (TBD). In mid-April we’ll also host our annual Earth Day Celebration in Water Street Park, featuring the musical talents of Absolute Hoot. The grill will be fired up for fresh grilled burgers, brats, hot dogs, and veggie burgers so make sure to come hungry. We’ve got some other special ideas in mind for this event too, so don’t miss out. June is a great month to enjoy the outdoors here in Decorah, and what better way than with a great big potluck. Everyone is invited to take part in this community event sponsored by the Oneota Co-op. Date is yet to be determined.

September will feature an outdoor, downtown meal with catering provided by the Co-op’s own Water Street Café. Fingers crossed for clear skies and perfect temperatures. After dining al fresco, kick up your heels and let the night unfold to the lively tunes of the Footnotes.

Throughout the year we are planningsome special events featuringlocal and regional chefs and cookbookauthors. Chef Kurt MichaelFriese, founding leader of Slow Food Iowa, editor-in-chief of “Edible Iowa Magazine,” and chef/co-owner of Devotay restaurant in Iowa City, will make a trip to Decorah. Robin Asbell, cookbook author, culinary instructor, speaker, writer, recipe developer and private chef from the Minneapolis area will stop down to impart her cooking expertise to willing class participants, as well as take part in a cookbook signing event held at Dug Road Inn.

Throw in a few M.A.D. sales, Scoop publications and the usual Taste the Local Harvest and Taste of the Holidays events, and we’ve got a year full of great community fun at the Oneota Co-op. Cheers to the kick-off of forty more years of business in this gem of a town we call home – Decorah.