A desire for a brick and mortar market carrying locally produced, clean foods year-round has become the impetus for those behind the consumer-owned Cultivate Community Food Co-op.
“It starts with the food we put in our bodies,” said Paula Schnese, president of the co-op’s board. But there’s another motivation, too. “We want foods with flavor!” Cultivate Community Food Co-op is the latest step in South Solano County to address food concerns. A single community garden has grown into Sustainable Solano. Community Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) offers local subscribers fresh seasonable products from regional organic farmers. Schnese and others want to take it to the next step – a food cooperative market.
A former Berkeley resident, Schnese kept shopping in Berkeley, since Benicia had no grocery specializing in natural and organic foods. Seeking others with similar frustrations at driving long distances and paying tolls just to get clean, flavorful foods, she scheduled a food summit in August 2015.
Asked to help plan Sustainable Solano’s 2016 “What’s for Dinner” series, Schnese suggested a co-op. Sustainable Solano Executive Director Elena Karoulina made it a topic of the first “What’s for Dinner” program that year. From there, new co-op members formed a starting committee. Schnese connected with the Food Co-op Initiative, which mentors new food cooperatives, when she attended a national conference in Indiana. The local co-op incorporated with a Board of Directors in July 2017.
Board Secretary Kim Barragan said she has her own reasons for investing in the co-op. Her daughter developed food intolerances about 20 years ago. Barragan learned that many children her daughter’s age had similar sensitivities, unlike her own childhood acquaintances, who never showed such symptoms. “Everyone I talk to seems to be aware through their own family or friends of this growing problem,” she said.
Then Barragan learned students lost those intolerances when they traveled to Europe, where some chemicals are banned. Like others who have become owners, she is anxious to see the co-op market open and operational. Unlike large companies, Barragan said the food co-op is made up of “a grass roots group of local volunteers who see a way to change our own local community for the better.” Schnese said many find that local ownership and control appealing.
There’s precedence for food co-ops in the greater Bay Area, Schnese said. Cultivate Community Food Co-op is patterned after three area consumer-owned co-ops, Sacramento Natural Foods, Placerville Food Co-op and its mentor, Davis Food Co-op. Two others are San Francisco’s Rainbow Grocery and Other Avenues and Oakland’s Mandela Foods.
Once the co-op reaches 1,200 owners, it intends to open a physical market. The store will be staffed by trained employees, who may join if they wish, Schnese said. Member or not, anyone can shop there. “If you eat, you are welcome,” Schnese said. “Without owners, this won’t happen.” So before the store opens, investors get discounts and exclusive opportunities to purchase foods in pilot programs and at pop-ups, among other benefits.
In one of those pilot programs, using products from just two area farms, owners bought organic seasonal vegetables, eggs, chicken bone broth, vinegar, seasoned salts and olive oil. In the near-term future, the co-op may offer items online. Once the market is open, it will have the variety of other food stores. Swift turnover will keep products fresh, and volume purchasing should make organic foods more affordable than in standard groceries, Schnese said. Most items will come from no more than 250 miles away.
“We are fortunate to live here in Northern California, where we will be able to order our products from surrounding counties, such as Yolo, Napa, Sonoma, Sacramento, Monterey and others, and have our produced picked for us in the morning and be delivered (within) 24 hours,” Barragan said.
Beyond giving customers a Benicia or Vallejo store site in which to shop, the co-op also expects to offer classes and social community events. “‘We believe the people of Solano County deserve the opportunity to thrive’ is a code that we keep in mind when we do all our planning,” Barragan said.
Owners may join through its website, cultivatecommunityfood.coop. The investment is $300 per share, which can be paid at once or through quarterly payments of $25. Owners may buy up to three shares, which would give them a larger yearly dividend payment. Each owner-household gets one vote on co-op decisions, no matter how many shares are purchased.