Walk In Like You Own the Place
Rediscovering Portland’s Cooperative Grocery Stores
BY LOLA MILHOLLAND
PHOTO BY RACHEL TORCHIA
The last time I visited Food Front Co-op was some six years ago with my mom, when she pulled our car into the parking lot and announced “A-ha, my old haunt.” In the 1970s, she had been a general manager, stocking bulk bins, boycotting Nicaraguan bananas, and convincing members that the co-op should sell alcohol. When I was a kid, I never considered Food Front to be a real store stocked with groceries, but rather the memorial of an era in my mom’s life.
When I returned from college this June, the glamour and abundance of New Seasons Market blinded me to the co-ops. At New Seasons Market, there is always the promise of a plastic dome filled with bread samples. Often, without bothering to focus my eyes, I marvel at the variety of jams and jellies—pounds of sweet preserves loaded onto the shelves—then I grab chunky peanut butter and run. I get exhausted, running from item to item like a television show contestant. But somehow, I rarely consider other shopping options.
Surprising myself one afternoon while I’m biking around NW Portland, I stop at Food Front Co-op. Near the entrance I linger at the apple and pear display. Who knew that there were so many apple varieties grown in Oregon? Melrose, Senshu, Belle de Boskoop. I grab a basket. As I’m walking Food Front’s aisles, I notice that I’m actually paying attention to the individual products on the shelves. As though in perfect contrast to the produce section, where I stood in awe of our local bounty, much of it delivered directly from nearby farms to the co-op’s door, the grocery aisles are restrained. Local products—many displayed at eye-level—jump out at me.
Portland has three independent consumer cooperatives: Food Front Cooperative Grocery, People’s Food Co-op, and Alberta Cooperative Grocery.
The small scale of all three allows for personality and direct relationships. A farmer may walk in with a box of freshly picked raspberries, and moments later watch as a customer walks out with a carton of the ripe, dewy berries in hand.
The consumer cooperative is a distinct economic model founded on democratic community ownership and guidance. Many individuals invest their capital to launch a co-op. From that point forward, it exists to serve its members and the community rather than to accumulate profits. Membership is open to all, and once aboard, you can participate in a rare instance of democracy in modern America.
Portland’s food co-ops are local businesses owned by the very people who frequent them. In their buying practices, each prioritizes local, sustainable and organic production, fair labor practices, and farm-direct distribution when possible. People’s Co-op has the most stringent guidelines: You won’t find anything grown with synthetic fertilizers or chemical pesticides; no products contain GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) or artificial flavors or colors; the co-op values minimal packaging; and you won’t find meat.
About 14 years ago, farmers unexpectedly began setting up in front of People’s Co-op. No one shooed them away. Instead, inviting more farmers, bakers, and foragers to join, People’s established a weekly farmers’ market. Open each Wednesday from 2 to 7 p.m., People’s Year-Round Farmer’s Market is one of only two year-round farmers’ markets in the city—the other is the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market.
I visit People’s Farmer’s Market on a bright Wednesday afternoon in October. Its small size and cheerfulness fuels my urge to try everything. I buy a Bavarian croissant, two tamales, and a bag of gnarly lobster mushrooms. While I’m ambling, Dave Beer of Wingnut Confections offers me a small wedge of his dark chocolate Marionberry truffle. Its richness and elegance make me light-headed. As a People’s Co-op member, he began selling his handmade organic, vegan chocolates in the farmers’ market several years ago. With a few carefully placed bribes (which is to say, truffles) he worked his way into the store, soon to the fellow co-ops, and now you can purchase his chocolates at Whole Foods and Sahagún, a magical chocolate shop on NW 16th.
The co-ops have been the first grocery outlets for many remarkable artisan producers. Although they have smaller selections than larger stores, the co-ops have more cutting edge local products. Their humanness and principles make them a welcoming and needed gateway into retail sales for small businesses.
Alberta Cooperative Grocery is the youngest of the three, having opened its doors in 2001. It stands as proof that modern-day communities recognize the value of co-ops. At the end of its chip aisle, laminated printouts portray the organic industry structure—one company owned by another, owned by another, in successive cannibalistic chains. Large corporations have swallowed many popular U.S. brands that I associate with real people and places. Tom’s of Maine is a subsidiary of Colgate-Palmolive. Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, which I think of as the Vermont spirit made manifest, is owned by Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever.
This isn’t to say that we must ban Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream from our freezers, but if we want to keep our money circulating in our communities, we have to support local enterprises. Many grocery stores scattered throughout Portland are owned from afar and show little interest in our local producers. Food Front, People’s, and Alberta co-ops are important exceptions that will remain community fixtures until their members democratically shut the doors. Our community is richer because we have diverse options.
As I’m leaving Alberta Co-op one afternoon with a crisp apple and a block of local butter, I feel suddenly proud that my mom involved herself with consumer co-ops from the start. Thirty years have passed, but Portland’s co-ops are as valuable now as ever.
Lola Milholland is a Food & Farms program assistant at Ecotrust. She recently graduated from Amherst College with a B.A. in Asian Studies. She fancies herself a Japanese beef expert.