Apples to oranges 

Missoula Community Food Co-op opens doors to non-members

The Missoula Community Food Co-op isn't like the average grocery store—or even the average co-op. It's based on the model established by the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn, where customers are required to sign up as owners and work regular monthly shifts to keep labor costs down and prices affordable. The Park Slope Co-op was also recently lampooned in the third season of the Comedy Central series "Broad City," where one of the lead characters, Ilana, is kicked out of the store for skipping her volunteer shifts.

"Everyone I know who works at Park Slope makes fun of it constantly," says Lee van de Water, one of two paid employees on staff at the Missoula co-op and a native New Yorker. "But it also has some real weight in that community."

He says Missoula organizers have long hoped their co-op could thrive the same way Park Slope's does, but "they sell local kale cheaper than we do, and they're in the heart of one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Brooklyn."

The problem is the Park Slope owner-member model relies on 13,000 active participants, whereas Missoula's co-op membership has hovered around 300 for the last few years. In early May, the Missoula membership voted in favor of allowing the general public to shop at the store for the first time, in hopes of bringing in more revenue and more potential members.

"We have a moment here to sort of say, 'Hello again, Missoula community. You've heard of us as the sometimes kind of janky little co-op on the Westside. Well, things are changing, and we want to invite you back,'" van de Water says.

Board co-chair Terri Roberts says it's a big step forward for the small cooperative, which was founded as a buyers' club in the early 2000s. Back then, it operated out of the North Missoula Community Development Corporation office in the old FedEx warehouse at 1500 Burns Street. In 2007, after the NMCDC remodeled the warehouse, the co-op opened its doors as a for-profit business in the building's northwest corner.

click to enlarge After years of adhering to a strict membership requirement, the Missoula Community Food Co-op is opening its doors to the public, with the goal of staying financially afloat. - PHOTO BY KATE WHITTLE
  • photo by Kate Whittle
  • After years of adhering to a strict membership requirement, the Missoula Community Food Co-op is opening its doors to the public, with the goal of staying financially afloat.

Despite its struggles, Roberts feels the co-op has been successful in its main mission of affordability.

"We have a lot of owners who are not making a lot of money and at times are really struggling," Roberts says. "We feel really good about being able to keep our prices low enough and affordable so they can shop here."

Public shopping already began on May 1 as part of the co-op's regular annual ownership drive. After June 12, public shopping will continue, though with a slightly higher markup for non-members since they won't be expected to volunteer for shifts.

Roberts says the June rollout is partly a strategy to offset how much business the co-op loses in summertime, when it has to compete with the farmers markets and community shared agriculture programs. She says they'll also be keeping closer tabs on whether members are showing up to their shifts to keep things fair for people who work the three-hour monthly shift to earn their discount.

The co-op's change to a more typical business format is bittersweet for longtime members, such as Hermina Harold, who signed up for the co-op in 2009.

"I was really committed to the model the way that it was, and I still am," Harold says. "I just don't want us to go out of business for the model."

Harold also helps run some of the co-op's programs through her work as a community organizer with NMCDC. She points out that the co-op's work goes far beyond just providing cheap groceries. It also lends volunteers and support to free community dinners, cooking classes and the "double SNAP" matching fund for EBT users. The co-op is contributing to a new program that will provide free dinners for children during this summer's Burns Street Kids Club.

"You join because you believe in something," Harold says. "So I think we'll see if people actually show up. Because if we're not solving a problem together, what's the point of it being a co-op?"

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