Natural food co-ops enjoy healthy growth
By Mali Anderson
Have you noticed the surge in healthy eating? Ingredients that were hard to locate a decade ago are now easily found, and food — where it is grown and how it is prepared — is the source of endless blogs and books. No longer unconventional, whole foods have gone mainstream. With Outpost celebrating 40 years, it is a perfect time to take a look back at the growth of the natural foods movement.
Consumer cooperatives have a history dating back to the early 1900s, but the version of co-ops we are familiar with today originated from the ‘new wave’ of co-ops that sprouted during the 1960s and ’70s. The self-titled ‘new wave’ was established with a belief in equality and a determination to succeed where other cooperative models had failed. Banding together, ‘new wave’ cooperative members created places to purchase whole, unrefined foods and became trailblazers in the natural foods movement.
During this time “cooperatives were opening at a much faster pace than other independent natural foods or health food stores,” says Pam Mehnert, General Manager for Outpost Natural Foods Cooperative. “Taking the food system into our own hands was a very powerful thing.”
Known for bulk foods, wooden shelves, handwritten labels and a volunteer staff, these co-ops thrived across the country as depots for unprocessed ingredients. In Milwaukee, the East Kane Street Food Co-op opened in 1970, an organization that floundered for a year, but eventually found its footing when it reorganized in a new store under a new name: Outpost.
In the 1980s, interest in local, healthy foods expanded. Farms providing CSA (community supported agriculture) shares surfaced in American communities. Similar models were already flourishing in Chile, parts of Europe and Japan.
Toward the end of the decade, the ‘slow food’ movement began in Italy. Their mission? To combat fast food culture, defend biodiversity in local food systems, promote the joy of eating and introduce growers to consumers.
Tastes began to change. Quiche and pasta salad arrived, both dishes proven best when filled with fresh vegetables. The Food and Drug Administration recommended consuming oat bran to lower cholesterol. Consumers concerned about pesticides began to turn to organic produce. In short, healthy food became popular and customers began to request more variety from their natural food stores.
Seeing the trend, some co-ops expanded to serve their customers’ needs. For instance, Outpost moved to a new location on Capitol Drive, the first Outpost to be designed in a supermarket format. Members responded. It was so successful that the space was expanded another 2,000 square feet seven years later.
There was also a movement to create solidarity between cooperatives. “Outpost was one of the original cooperatives back in the 1990s to sit on a planning committee to bring Midwest cooperatives together to share information. That was the beginning of our cooperative grocers system, now National Cooperative Grocers Association,” says Mehnert. The NCGA helps unify natural food co-ops in order to optimize operational and marketing resources, strengthen purchasing power, and ultimately offer more value to natural food co-op owners and shoppers everywhere.
Another shift in the ’90s was the introduction of organic dairy and meats. Prior to this time, many health-conscious shoppers used dairy alternatives due to apprehension over pesticide and growth hormone use. The increase in organic products escalated the natural food industry for consumers, cooperatives and farmers.
“Growth in organics offered an alternative to conventional farming for small family farms; the transition to organics has helped many small farmers stay in business in a sector dominated by large scale commercial operations. The benefit to consumers is more local and regional foods, and a closer connection to their food source.” Says Kelly Smith, Director of Marketing and Communications for NCGA.
Of course, with profit to be made, big corporations have seen a sales opportunity in the natural foods movement. A few corporations have purchased smaller health food stores and many supermarket chains now have a section stocked with natural foods, an area floored with wood or packed with shelves in an attempt to replicate the feel of a ‘new wave’ co-op.
Yet in the face of market changes, co-ops like Outpost — now three stores strong — have remained robust by maintaining a local focus. Outpost, for example, “never stopped dealing with the smaller farmers and vendors who wouldn’t otherwise have a market for their products,” says Mehnert.
Healthy, whole and unprocessed food, a focus on local and excellent customer service: these are the objectives that have kept cooperatives growing along with the natural foods movement.
“We want everyone to know that when they shop at Outpost or any food co-op, fresh, delicious food is just the beginning,” says Smith. “You can nourish your family. Discover local foods. Connect with others and help build a strong community. It all comes together at co-ops.”