Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Ten Reasons I Love My Food Co-op

Not only has the UN declared 2012 to be the International Year of Cooperatives, but the month of October has also been deemed National Co-op Month. So what better time is there to celebrate my favorite cooperative, Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op (affectionately known as MNFC or the Co-op)? Here are ten reasons to show your local co-op some love:

1.      MNFC operates under the guidance of the Seven Cooperative Principles, derived from The International Cooperative Alliance in Geneva, Switzerland: I like seeing these principles displayed in large letters by the checkout, assuring me that my dollars are supporting a force for positive change.

2.      It really does operate under these principles. As a member-controlled, democratically run business that’s governed by a member-elected board, it’s responsive to its members, myself included. Case in point: for a while they were carrying a bread from California that had a cult following among certain shoppers. It was tasty, but with the plethora of excellent breads baked locally, it made no sense to be selling bread from 3,000 miles away. I (and most likely others) raised this concern and the bread is no longer sold at the Co-op. Apologies to those who were enthusiasts of that bread, but with Red Hen and all the other options, I’m guessing they don’t miss it much.

3.      It’s a cornucopia of locally grown and produced foods. I’m a big supporter of farmers markets and CSAs and shop at these regularly also, especially in the summertime. But we all get busy, and MNFC offers a convenient alternative by being open seven days a week year ‘round. Plus I can find everything I need there in one place, much of it local. I like knowing that I’m supporting area  farmers and reducing my impact on the environment. Plus the food simply tastes better. In the past few years, sales of local foods have averaged around 25% of total sales at the Co-op, and during the month of September a giant ear of corn outside the store has been tracking the “Eat Local Challenge,” with its goal of $260,000 paid to local food producers. I’m content to do my part, my bags stuffed full with local fare.

4.     They do the screening for me.  I’m confident that whatever I purchase at MNFC has been carefully scrutinized for its healthfulness, and that it has been produced using ethical business practices. I don’t have to read labels as much or research certain companies before I shop, since I know that if the Co-op carries it, it must be okay. Shopping is easier because I can focus on choosing what appeals to my family without worrying about what Monsanto is trying to sneak past me.

5.     They’ve got the best selection of cheese around. I’m a big fan of Vermont cheese, and MNFC’s fromage case is like a weekend trip touring cheese farms around the state. Over seventy Vermont varieties are available for tasting. I have my favorites, but I also like to try a new one every now and again, like the decadent Spring Brook Farm Reading Raclette I brought home recently. The Co-op’s cheese department does a great job mixing it up and keeping it interesting. Because certain cheeses can’t be found in Vermont and sometimes a person just wants to have Parmigiano Reggiano, they also offer a goodly selection of international cheeses. Plus they only carry cheese and dairy products that are free of the Bovine Growth Hormone rBST.

6.     They’re socially conscious. Like the rest of the country, Vermonters have been hit hard by the recession. Because MNFC’s board is committed to making healthy food accessible to the whole community, they recently launched a new initiative called Food for All, which offers a discount to people of financial need. Seniors also receive a discount. Since 15% of Vermonters live in food insecure households, this initiative will hopefully make it easier for everyone in the community to eat nutritious food.

7.      The atmosphere is pleasant and relaxing. It makes me happy to shop at the Co-op, as opposed to feeling stressed out by advertising clamoring for my attention and overwhelmed by an overabundance of unhealthy choices. While some cereal aisles are like miniature versions of Times Square, at the Co-op the colors and lighting are subdued and the selection is both varied and sufficient. Everything is organized in a way that makes sense. The staff and volunteers are friendly and knowledgeable and seem genuinely happy to be there themselves. 

8.     The Co-op's prepared foods, soups, and salad bar make for one of the best lunches in town. The offerings are all healthy and reasonably priced and delicious—who knew tempeh could taste so good? My daughter Isabel is a fan of their spring rolls and Faye devours their turkey chile. They have a sweet little seating area inside, or the outside courtyard is a popular spot when the weather is nice. 

9.     The bulk foods, need I say more? There’s something about scooping up just the right amount of quinoa or oats or almonds that makes my day. Not to mention the herbs and spices and teas, which are a visual and fragrant feast. No excess packaging is going into landfills and there’s less waste, since I can buy exactly as much as I need. Being able to see food in this way, instead of covered by distracting wrappers and ads, makes me a smarter and more aware consumer. Plus, let’s admit it, it’s fun to plunge the scooper into a batch of granola. This used to be one of the highlights of my daughters’ day when they were preschoolers, and I was comforted in knowing  that they weren’t being brainwashed into desiring cartoon packaged processed “food.” 

10.   It’s more than a store—it’s central to the community. When my family travels, we often hunt down the local food co-op to purchase healthy lunches and snacks. They also tend to provide a real flavor of the local community, and this is true of MNFC as well. The bulletin boards announce upcoming events, featured local farmers and producers offer in-store samplings, and I often see friends and neighbors in the aisles. I can’t imagine Middlebury without the Co-op. Let’s celebrate it, and co-ops around the world, every month and every year, for all that they contribute to the greater good.