Food and Culture: The Amazing Story of Minnesota’s Thriving Food Co-ops

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As some of you know, I’m in the middle of my annual visit to Minnesota. I’m spending ten days with family and friends, and mostly with my 89-year-old mother. Although I’m on vacation, I can’t help noting the status of Minnesota’s food culture.  Two years ago, in my first blog post, I wrote about the notorious food-on-a-stick at the Minnesota State Fair. I didn’t visit the fair this year, but I did check out something which gives me a lot of hope, and that is Minnesota’s vigorous food co-op movement.

Co-ops (short for co-operatives) were brought to Minnesota by northern European immigrants in the 19th Century and thrived well into the 20th. Co-ops are businesses owned by their customers, who buy shares and either receive a discount on purchases or a percentage of the profits, and are usually governed by an elected board of directors. Fifty or sixty years ago, it wasn’t unusual for small Minnesota towns to have a co-op gas station, creamery, grocery store, even a general merchandise store. As those co-ops declined, a new style of co-op, inspired by the alternative culture movement, sprang up all around the country, really, but these new co-ops seem to have endured especially well in Minnesota.

Needing to shop for dinner, my mom and I headed to the new and nearby St. Peter Food Co-op. St. Peter is a college town of fewer than 10,000 people deep in Minnesota farm country, but this market is one any sophisticated urban neighborhood would be happy to claim. I was thrilled to see how roomy, well-stocked and beautiful a store it is.

The St. Peter Food Co-op first opened as an all-volunteer, storefront business in July of 1979. It expanded about ten years later, survived a horrendous tornado which hit the town in 1998 and moved into its present site this past April. The co-op raised $900,000 in new and renewed memberships and received a loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to finance the more than $3 million it took to buy and renovate a sixty-year-old auto dealership into a stylish natural foods supermarket. Although the store sells a wide range of goods, they feature local and organic foods as much as possible and have some 500 items in bulk. I was impressed to see an attractive deli, salad bar, in-house bakery, and inside and outdoor seating.  In short, I wish this store were in my neighborhood!

What is perhaps more impressive is that this is just one of more than forty food co-ops in Minnesota, ranging from the Wedge in Minneapolis which operates its own organic farm (and where I used to shop), to the Countryside Co-op in tiny Hackensack (population 313) in north central Minnesota. I’m heartened to see that this healthy food movement is not confined to hip, urban enclaves, but is spread throughout the state. As depressed as I sometimes get about the state of America’s food and health, I am immensely cheered to see how people here in Minnesota are working to create healthy soil, nourishing food and meaningful work. To everyone involved in this movement, I say a hearty thank-you and best wishes for a bright future!

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Photos–Top: Locally-grown, mostly organic produce. Above: The St. Peter Food Co-op faces Minnesota Avenue in downtown St. Peter (more photos after the jump).

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