By David Lester, General Manage
It is hard to believe that our Co-op has reached its fortieth anniversary. From our early days as a food buying club to our first store front in “Oleville” in 1974, our Co-op has always evolved to meet the needs of its members. “What do our members want?” has always been the question that many board of directors and management teams have tried to answer over these last four decades. That question is still what drives our decisions from what kind of milk to carry to bigger, strategic projects that will further the Co-op’s mission.
When my family and I were looking to move from Iowa City in 1996, we had three requirements for our next new home: 1) a small, safe community to raise kids with a big, outdoor playground, 2) a college town, 3) a food co-op. Check. Check. And, check. Like so many families and individuals before us, we popped into the Co-op for a quick snack while visiting. A cashier named Liz Rog recognized us as visitors and the next thing we knew we were living on a farm with a trout pond and learning the schottische on Saturday evenings. Our family’s story is not unique, and countless Co-op staff and Co-op members have been welcoming visitors and promoting this special corner of the world as a great place to live and raise a healthy family since our earliest days.That sense of community is thriving in our store today and the people keep coming. We signed up over 342 new members in 2013 (the most new members since 2008), and our class attendance/participation was up 116% over 2012. The Co-op participated in a pilot project with the Iowa State Extension office and its Food Value Chain Coordinator, Nick McCann, to aggregate and distribute more locally grown products from the northeast Iowa area into the hands of thousands of eastern Iowans and beyond. The model is working and our local purchases are increasing which means more local producers are making a living at doing what they love. It has been awe-inspiring to hear the stories of our Co-op growing up. There have been over 180 employees, many board members and countless member volunteers that have built our store into what it is today. The stories from Oleville are priceless. A dirt floor, garbage cans with bulk grains, hiding the key to the front door and putting money into a secret bin are just a few that come to mind. With each store front move, came hours of volunteer time to move and build shelving, move equipment and paint the walls. Beyond the successful financial figures, beyond the different kinds of peanut butter on the shelf, there is this deep connection and love of this store that makes us successful.
Our members are passionate about sourcing as much locally-grown and organic products that we can. They let us know when they want to see a new product on the shelf and question our staff when they don’t like something on the shelf. Our members teach classes, they volunteer their time in different ways and they see our store as a place they can trust to get the best quality products for their families. Our members want the Co-op to succeed because it is important to our community’s identity.
So, let’s all raise a glass (Champagne, wine or kombucha…your choice) and take the time to celebrate the last forty years of our existence and reflect on those who helped us get here and encourage others to join us on this incredible journey for the next forty years. Cheers!