Food. There is no greater human need than the ability to feed ourselves and nourish our children. So vital is food security that Maslow ranked it as the number one human necessity ahead of shelter on his theory of hierarchy of needs. Food is a matter of national security; there are way too many in our nation who go without sufficient meals and the lack of healthy food option is the number one leading cause of obesity and preventable diseases in America and throughout the world. Hunger and deficiency of nourishment that impacts should be treated as a national security.
Food security is not a problem we can just brush off as if it only impacts the least among us. In the age of “just in time inventory” and six sigma efficiency, we have grown dependent on big corporations and their distribution network to supply our foods and keep the shelves stocked to go shopping on demand. But what if there is an interruption in the supply channels? What if there is a localized or regional emergency that disturbs the hub to spoke distribution network? We are a nation that panic buys when there is an inch of snow on the ground; what if a bigger crisis prevents the Walmarts or the Giants of this world from stocking their shelves for weeks? How long will a city like New York or Chicago go before chaos breaks out?
This is not a hypothetical, if you Google Venezuela and go to the news section, you will see a nation being torn asunder by lack of food which has riled the public to near anarchy. Food security in this context is not only vital, it is an imperative to maintaining a social order. It is with this context in mind that I interviewed Stephanie Bublitz of the Fort Collins Food Co-Op and in the process talked about how shopping locally can mitigate a lot of social ills that impact our nation and can also empower local entrepreneurs and businesses who reside in our communities instead of handing our resources and cash over to multi-national corporations that are disconnected from us. Below is the conversation I had with Stephanie.
TF: Food scarcity is a major concern in the 21st century. It is often cited by those who believe in community empowerment that it is essential to shop and grow locally, can you talk about this notion, about the imperative behind locally grown foods and empowering businesses which are locally owned
SB: I would consider it “health food scarcity”. Food is plentiful, if it can be called that. Access to real, wholesome foods, especially for those who struggle to get by is the problem we face.
I think it is past time we take back control of our food system. That can only happen at a grassroots level, in my opinion. For those who can afford to, shop local. Consider every purchase and where that money is going and what it is supporting. You get to vote with your fork every time you buy something to eat and feed your family.
Making real food accessible to all is the hard part. Thankfully, organizations in town like Sproutin Up and the Growing Project are doing amazing things in Fort Collins! The Food Coop does happily accept EBT as a form of payment for any food item.
TF: Inflation is a hidden beast that creeps into our lives without notice mostly through increases in food cost. How does the concept of a food co-op tame this aspect of continued increases in the cost of goods and food.
SB: Well, there is no easy answer to this one. For one, we Americans are not used to paying the real price for things like food. When you factor in things like fair wages for the farmers and migrant workers, miles traveled to get to your table and the cost of environmental damage, that can of soup you just paid 50 cents for should cost a whole lot more. So that’s one.
Then, there is the cold, hard truth that we pay more than the “big guy” for the exact same item from the exact same distributor. Why? Cause there is only one little Ft Collins Food Coop and hundreds of the other guys. They get a quantity discount and we most certainly do not.
What should surprise folks is just how close our prices really are. With a few exceptions, many (larger brand) products are very similarly priced. If they are more it is generally only 5-10% more here. We do not artificially inflate prices. We do keep the money spent here in Ft Collins, though. We also consider the triple bottom line in everything we do (people, planet, profits.) We do live for local food rather than just paint it on our windows.
Ultimately, the best way we can combat inflation is by offering the best bulk and local selection in town and working with the little guys to make sure that more money goes into the pockets of the growers and producers here in Colorado. By shopping in bulk and not paying for new packaging you can save a lot of money! Bonus: We also encourage folks to shop zero waste and bring their own containers to refill directly.
TF: How does the concept of a food co-op differ from the typical corporate owned or franchise based marketplaces and stores?
SB: In just about every way imaginable! A food coop like the FCFC is owned by our friends and neighbors. They have each purchased an equity share of the Coop. They are the closest thing we have to share holders! There is no CEO making 300% more than the staff. There is a genuine sense of Community here!
Coops everywhere run under the same 7 cooperative principles. They are listed HERE.We work closely with local producers. In fact, in many cases, we act as the first retail opportunity for new, small companies. Some don’t even have a bar code, which would never be allowed in a large corporation. In addition, we have a staff who truly love their job. We love interacting with our Members and customers. Many shoppers are known by name and considered friends.
TF: It seems that the two aspects of businesses that disconnects them from the community they serve is size and structure of the company. When a store gets too big and when a store becomes publicly owned, the focus goes from maximizing the quality given to customers to maximizing profits in order to serve shareholders. Can you talk about how the food co-op differs from the “large and public” model and how that enables you to better serve the customers and community you serve
SB: Well, if you have ever been in the Food Coop, we are pretty cozy. So there is that. We are also a not for profit. Bottom line is never our priority, though in theory we would like to be a thriving business. The more profit we make the more we can do one of two things: Reinvest it in the Coop or return it to our Member Owners in the form of dividend. Also, the more successful we are the more we would be able to help support our local farmers and producers.
TF: Homelessness is a major issue in Fort Collins and really across America, how is the Food Co-Op involved in ameliorating this issue?
SB: First thing that comes to mind is our daily attitude towards every person who walks through our door, which is complete and total respect. This is a safe space. Having attended a fair share of the business meetings, I feel like respect is not something every downtown shop owner has towards those without a home. Coop staff took a stance against the Sit Lie Ban that was recently almost passed by our City Council. Staff attended a meeting and took a survey discouraging such a discriminatory law.
Our customers show a like minded attitude. It is not uncommon for someone to purchase a sandwich or a gift card for someone up the street who looks like they need a meal.
The Coop does gather up just-pulled, but still usable produce and newly expired grocery products for donation to the Mission. We also have jars by the register with rotating non profits for customers to drop their change in. Recent charities were FCCAN and Homeless Gear.
TF: Can you talk about the Food Co-op business model, specifically how do customers become stake holders in the Food co-op and what benefits do customers get by being share holders in the Food Co-op.
SB: Of course! The Fort Collins Food Coop is a Community Owned Grocery Store where you can own a grocery store with your friends and neighbors. Anyone can purchase a lifetime equity share for $160. We make sure most can afford this by offering payment plans as low as $10 quarterly payments. See above where I have linked to our 7 Cooperative Principles. It is a fundamentally different business model from your typical corporation.
Benefits of Membership include taking control back of your local food system and a genuine support for Community, including those who grow and make your food. Additional benefits include:
- 20% discounts when you purchase in bulk (think 25# bag of flour or 12 ct case of tomato sauce.)
- Voting rights for our Board of Directors (direct democracy at work!)
- Discounts in store specific to Members only as well as Coops across the Country
- Discounts at Participating Local Businesses
- Potential of Profit Sharing/ Dividend which is dependent on profit and determined by the Board of Directors
- Member Owner specific events such as our Annual Member Meeting (think free tacos!)
TF: Can you share with the readers the history of the Food Co-op, the mission behind it’s inception and what the vision is for the Food Co-op going forward.
SB: The Fort Collins Food Coop was started in 1972 by a group of CSU students (many of whom still shop here!) who wanted access to healthy, wholesome foods. They banded together and started a buying club. They would gather the bulk products (such as brown rice and peanut butter) and divide them up among the Members. It gradually, over the years, turned into the store you see today.
We hope to continue to be the place to come for local products, amazing bulk shopping, friendly, quirky staff and atmosphere and all the things that make us stand out from our increasingly numerous competition. It used to be organic foods were hard to find. Now you can find them at Walmart.
That may mean we have to redefine ourselves to some extent. We certainly need to do some updates. There has been some turbulence over the last several years. Three General Managers in the last Six years. This place has been pushed and pulled about every direction possible. We have spent the last year rediscovering ourselves and grounding the store. We are currently Cooperatively Managed by a group of long time staff who “get” the Coop and are working hard to get us back to our roots. We have the collective knowledge and combined skills to do right by the Coop and our Member Owners.
In the near future, we look forward to a very badly needed face lift. For years there was talk of moving to a larger location. The current real estate market do not justify such a large endeavor. We own our building right in the middle of Old Town Fort Collins! It is our hope that with a little remodeling and a few more shoppers we will thrive. If we can’t make it here then Fort Collins just may not support the ideals behind a Cooperative. I am optimistic, though. I have faith that our best years are ahead!
I met Stephanie at a community event in Fort Collins hosted by a community based bookstore called Wolverine Farm. It was no accident that Fort Collins Food Co-Op was present in a community event that was dedicated to building up Fort Collins. This is the difference between local private businesses and international public corporations; small businesses have a stake in serving their community for they live right where they work. More of us should think about shopping less at the big boxes and corporate markets and shopping locally. It’s not only good for our communities, doing so is an imperative. #ShopFoodCoOp
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” ~ Hippocrates
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Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Lij Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Lij Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.