If the concept of food cooperatives conjures up images of burning bras and withered, wormy produce, hear me out. The times they have a’changed, and today’s co-ops (about 500 nationwide) can be the hometown equivalent of a certain high-end, multi-billion-dollar, national green grocery chain. As with farmers markets, all are not created equal, but when you hit upon a good one, it’s easy to see why they’re such community hubs.
One of the defining principles of many co-ops is their commitment to purchase produce, meat (if they’re not vegetarian stores), and dairy as direct as possible, often from local farmers. By shopping there, you’re promoting food security and supporting the community. Most co-ops are also open to non-members.
Great product aside, I love checking out co-ops because they give me a sense of place. I learn about what foods are indigenous to or cultivated in the region, and usually, who grows them (I have a particular weakness for hand-lettered signs informing me I’m purchasing “Farmer Bob’s Pixie tangerines,” or blackberry honey from an enterprising 10-year-old’s backyard hives).
No matter how well-intentioned, not everything in even the best co-op is regional, as it depends upon what grows in that area, and the time of year. But the best co-ops have a high proportion of local products, and I award bonus for a truly appetizing deli (no tempeh loaf, please), bakery, and an espresso bar. When I’m on the road, dropping under five bucks for a delicious breakfast (steel-cut oatmeal, polenta, or ethereal scones, perhaps) and a well-made latte with locally-roasted beans always makes me happy. With a good co-op, that’s often possible.
Below, some of my favorite food co-ops in the western U.S.:
1. Ashland Food Co-op, Oregon
Located just over the California border in the Rogue River Valley, Ashland is famous for its Shakespeare Festival. It also deserves props for the co-op, with its selection of carefully curated local produce, deli, espresso bar, and delicious baked goods. Hippie haters may cringe at the earnestness of the patrons, but grab a seat on the patio, and enjoy the show. The surrounding Railroad District neighborhood boasts galleries, artist studios, shops, and restaurants.
[Photo credit: Kootenay Co-op, Flickr user donkeycart]
2. Rainbow Grocery, San Francisco
This beloved collective draws customers seeking out some of the most impeccable produce, dairy, and specialty foods in the nation–all grown or made nearby. Look for goat cheese from Harley Farms, seasonal Gravenstein apples from Sebastopol, and honey from the bulk tank.
3. Boise Co-op, Idaho
I stumbled upon this co-op while exploring Boise, and fell in love. Idaho doesn’t usually conjure images of pristine produce aside from potatoes, but this bustling store is packed with beautiful local product, a deli, and an impressive housewares department. Located in a pleasant quasi-residential neighborhood walking distance from the downtown core.
4. Ocean Beach People’s Organic Foods Market, San Diego
It’s all about produce at this large, contemporary collective, especially citrus. But be sure to pick up a sandwich or some picnic items from the deli/bakery; the beach is just a few blocks away. Confession: I got a job here as a recent college grad, and it’s a tribute to my former boss, Trent (then and still the produce manager) that I found a career in food and sustainable agriculture. I was living in my car and going through a severe quarter-life crisis at the time, and by the end of my first day working with him, it was as though a light (energy-saving, of course) had switched on in my serotonin-starved brain. Thanks, Trent!
5. PCC Natural Markets, Fremont (Seattle)
Call it hometown advantage, but I live down the street from this store–part of a greater Seattle co-op chain–and shop here several times a week. It’s my favorite of the stores–some of which could use a makeover. Located in the pretty Fremont neighborhood on Lake Union’s northern shore, it’s modern, inviting, and stuffed with local product. Don’t miss Grace Harbor Farms yogurt, made from butterfat-rich Guernsey milk: the thick layer of cream on top is irresistible.
6. La Montanita Co-op Food Market, Santa Fe
It’s hard to beat Santa Fe’s famous farmers market, but should you miss it or require some additional souvenirs (posole and Chimayo chilies, anyone?), swing by this New Mexico co-op chain. Mark your calendars for September, when select stores roasts massive batches of organic Hatch chilies.
7. Davis Food Co-op, Davis, California
Home to one of the nation’s top ag schools, Davis is located within Yolo County, one of California’s largest farming regions. You’ll find exquisite vegetables from small farming champs like Full Belly Farm and Riverdog Farm of nearby Capay Valley, as well as local olive oil, honey, nuts, orchard fruits, and cheese. Cooking classes for kids and teens, too.
8. Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, California
Take the same wonderful products found in Davis, and add an ambitious learning center and cooking school program for kids and adults. Learn how to raise backyard chickens, take a two-day farming intensive, or gain some urban cycling skills.
9. People’s Food Co-op, Portland, Oregon
Portland is rightfully one of the nation’s epicenters of mindful eating. With both excellent restaurants and farmers markets, a co-op may not make it onto your travel itinerary, but if you’re in the Clinton neighborhood on the Southeast side, stop by. The reason Portland gets it right? Oregon is a leader in sustainable agriculture and livestock production, artisan cheesemaking, craft brewing, and winemaking. The store also holds a year-round farmers market every Wednesday, 2-7pm.
10. Central Co-op, Seattle
Located in Seattle’s hipster thicket of Capitol Hill, this popular spot is just the place for an espresso before hitting the aisles. A seriously bomber selection of PacNW craft beer and wine, and a tiny but well-stocked cheese case featuring offerings from the likes of Washington’s excellent Black Sheep Creamery = one hell of a happy hour.
For a national directory of food co-ops, click here.
[Photo credits: peppers, Laurel Miller; bread, Flickr user farlane; apples, Flickr user Shaw Girl; espresso, Flickr user Nick J Webb]