By: Cerrisa Snethen, Oneota Co-op Member/Owner
Whether or not you experimented with it in college, the “C” word can be jarring. Commitment. It’s terrifying. For my partner Jim and me, it took us months to get it together and take the plunge to become member/owners at the Co-op. I mean, we were used to dropping into a store, buying our food and getting out. At these more conventional retailers, no one asked us for our digits, or what our hobbies were, or encouraged us to go steady with them by really investing in a relationship. I mean, we were only 25. Were we ready for such a serious commitment? This Co-op seemed pretty intriguing and righteous, even sort of undeniably sexy (maybe it’s the produce?), but a little unorthodox. Was this Co-op just too high maintenance? Could we still see other grocery stores? Would we introduce the Co-op to our parents?
But the more we weighed things, the more we realized: the Co-op just really made us feel good about ourselves. We liked the Co-op’s friends. They seemed really cool and caring. We seemed to laugh a lot when we were with the Co-op. And boy could the Co-op cook! Oneota’s values, principles, leadership, and classes were really encouraging us to become more educated, more involved in our new community and more thoughtful citizens of our hometown.
Slowly at first, but then suddenly, we stopped going anywhere else. We were all-in with the Co-op. We began relying on it on to fill our kitchen, broaden our perspective and knowledge, and host us for countless breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. At those awesome Cafe meals we met many of the people who have now become the currently invaluable regular cast-of-characters in our lives. Somehow, we just don’t see any other way we want to live now that we know how good it feels to support our values and our local economy so directly.
Making this leap isn’t as seamless for everyone. I realize that our relationships with food are deeply entrenched in all kinds of deep, sometimes uncomfortable-to-talk-about issues: family culture, health, the environment, and the big one: Money. That last one has often been the number one reason I’ve seen folks over the years flirt with co-ops instead of going steady, or of utilizing the Co-op to just sort of quietly cheat on their bigger box grocery retailer for organic produce, or indulge their splurges on the luxuriously amazing hand soap Gretchen stocks for us (who can resist it?). I’ve seen friends cross over to going steady with the Co-op so-to-speak, only to break up months later, returning to artificially low prices elsewhere. It can be tough to pay a more authentic price for our food and household items when we’re so used to the western privilege of paying so little. Not to mention, the economy isn’t exactly singing show tunes these days. But shopping at the Co-op more frugally and efficiently can be done. Keep an eye out for classes and information on buying in season and in bulk, and ask the staff – they understand Co-op sales and how to most effectively use your discount, special order items already on sale, budget for the month by adding a declining balance to your account, and how to reduce costs by doing things like bringing along your own container for olive oil.
For me, it’s the same way with making all of the valuable relationships in my life work and be beneficial. It takes the will and desire to continually re-commit myself and to get educated if I want to continue growing and become a better part of that equation. So flows my relationship with my Co-op. It’s that important to our family because what we eat literally makes up what we are. In a world where so many choices seem to be being made for us by people behind closed doors, in using the treasure of a natural food co-op in our community, we can choose to support that which we cherish most. Because what would our town be like without it?
How about the life of our two-year-old son? After his birth, the Co-op was the very first place we took him after walking out of the hospital. Sure, we needed physical nourishment before we headed home with our new baby. But we needed community nourishment as well. And we knew just where to go. I’m certain that even had we not known a soul at the Co-op at that time (though we definitely did), we would have felt that energy from the people there regardless. Hokey? Maybe. But it really is that kind of place.
I’ve literally never had anyone confide in me that they just can’t let go of eating foods filled with pesticides, chemical additives, and GMO’s because those things are just good and important for them to ingest. Unfortunately, instead most point to the cost, which I couldn’t empathize with more. I should tell you honestly and right off of the top that my family earns a relatively small amount of money by American standards. Sometimes others seem to gaze upon our intention to try and raise our family as holistically as possible with this completely justified aura of “What are you, the Rockefellers? Who can afford that?” Well, the truth is, many of us. I realize that organic food comes with a stigma, but I must submit that it’s not really fair. Buying more natural, organic, and local foods is an easier commitment when we change our definition of the word wealth, and try (as best as we can) to put our money where our values are.
I won’t lie to you. I have moments where I pine for more stuff, or “better” stuff, or stuff that’s been re-designed to make my stuff look frumpy and boring, utterly vanilla. But then I remember that what I’m putting in the “gas tank” of my family is far more important. The result: we buy less stuff, so that we can buy amazing food, and the majority of what we do buy comes second hand. It works. After all, what gives most of us more joy over the course of our lives? The experience and memory of fabulous meals and traditions with people we love, or the memory of the stuff we’ve purchased? Food really does have the power to make us feel truly wealthy, truly connected, truly well and truly grateful. All of those things trigger my brain’s happy chemicals which might be why this whole co-op “thing” feels a lot like love.
I began to love the Co-op so much a few years ago that it made sense to start working there. During my pregnancy with my son, Eben, his Dad went off to teach high school Spanish every day and I rang up gorgeous groceries in the evening, chatted with customers, and helped organize member volunteers. It was such a sweet time. One of intense growth and learning. It was the first time in my life I was working for an organization that lined up so perfectly with my ethics and passed on such inspiring possibility for the future, which buoyed my hope for the world of the baby we were about to meet. Even now, having moved into other professional opportunities, I maintain the ability to do a little writing for the Co-op, teach the occasional cooking class, and wander in any time I need a boost. We’re still supporting each other. Our family sticks with the Co-op, because most of what we glean from having this place around is really incalculable. How do I even begin to add up the value of all of the incredible friendships, community, and professional connections made through the Co-op’s vast network of awesomely intentional members? I don’t. I just shrug off the extra dollar for toothpaste and know that it’s going a long way toward giving my kid, my family, and my community a better quality of life.