Fredericksburg Food Cooperative Growing
It isn’t easy for Lawrence Latané to earn his daily bread.
In the spring, his farm, Blenheim Organic Gardens, provides locavores with asparagus. He bags and sells organically grown salad mix. In the summer, demand turns to tomatoes and in the fall he sells sweet potatoes by the bushel at local farmers markets.
But year after year as he plants, harvest and sells, there seems to be a disconnect with the hype around local, environmentally sustainable food and the ability and desire for people to access it.
That’s why he joined the Fredericksburg Food Cooperative, which hopes to open a full-service, member-owned grocery store with a special focus on local foods, natural and organic products and sustainable environmental practices.
“It probably means survival for a lot of farms,” Latané said about the cooperative. “In contrast to the publicity that local food gets, it’s an extremely hard way to earn a living. It’s easier to produce the vegetables than it is to find a market for them.”
A food cooperative is a business owned and controlled by its member. Co-ops sell food and related items to members and nonmembers, but rather than seeking to maximize profits, cooperatives make decisions based on maximizing service to their member–owners and the community.
The group was incorporated in September 2015 and a store will open when membership reaches 1,000. A lifetime membership costs $200, which goes toward opening the store.
The food cooperative grew in 2016, beginning the year with 41 member-owners and ending with 315. Now the cooperative has 319.
Director and board chair Rich Larochelle said the 300-member mark is meaningful because it is the level at which food cooperatives generally launch a formal market study.
The group has contracted CDS Consulting Cooperative and the study is expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2017.
Funding for the study is provided by donations, sales the group has sponsored and a grant awarded in 2016 by the Food Co-Op Initiative.
The study will look at the region to verify that it has what it takes to support a cooperative: population density, types of employers, and if the population has the background typically associated with food cooperative shoppers based on education, income and areas of interest.
“It’s to confirm what you think you already know,” Larochelle said.
He said while the group is looking at properties, it will not nail down a store location until it reaches 800 members. It typically takes 3 to 5 years for a cooperative to hit that threshold, according to Larochelle.
In 2015, a majority of locals surveyed by a project at the University of Mary Washington said they would support a food cooperative in downtown Fredericksburg.
FCI, the national nonprofit organization devoted to helping startup food co-ops, which awarded the local organization its 2016 grant, said food cooperatives are gaining popularity and calls the stores economic anchors and social hubs for communities.
In Virginia, efforts to start food cooperatives are sprouting up around the state.
Larochelle and other members of the local cooperative attended the first meeting of Virginia’s Food Cooperatives in December. While Roanoke and Harrisonburg have established food cooperatives, similar movements are starting in Richmond, Lynchburg and Lovettsville, Larochelle said.
Fredericksburg’s store is envisioned to be 10,000 square feet, with a full-service grocery store, café and educational events that “strengthen the connection between farmers and community and share best practices on health and nutrition,” Larochelle said.
Latané also thinks a cooperative—“with a quality food market that focuses on local”—is the missing link for Fredericksburg, which he said already has the art, shops and restaurants to sustain a vibrant city.
While farmers markets are effective at offering a place to sell, he said the city needs a store with regular business hours “for someone who would look for it, to present a connection between the farmer and city that has escaped in modern times.”
That opportunity for farmers to grow and sell produce year-round would “really enhance what makes Fredericksburg a compelling place to live,” he said.
The food cooperative will hold an event to celebrate its 300 members on Jan. 19 with an “Open House at Historic Camellia Cottage,” 207 Amelia St. from 3 to 5 p.m. Vegan and gluten-free food will be offered and new member Delsie Dickard will be available to sign her book, “Coming UnGlutened."