Local Food for Local People, the Co-op Way

Southern Idaho
A project of: Northwest Cooperative Development Center

Diane Gaseway, diane@nwcdc.coop

A group of visionaries came together in the fall of 2006 in southern Idaho. The topic was connecting people to wholesome, local foods. The participants were local people—farmers neighbors, restaurant owners, parents and business owners. They spoke passionately of their commitment to wholesome foods. This was about more than nutrition, they said. It was also about food security and support of local producers. The traditional, worldwide system for transporting and selling foods did not support their values. It was time to take action as a community.

This was the beginning of Idaho’s Bounty Cooperative. Today, the online local food cooperative electronically links local producer members with consumer members through an Internet ordering system instead of a physical store. Its members as co-owners developed a “virtual marketplace,” which now distributes $700,000 of local products a year within southern Idaho. The co-op’s story is told in a case study available at www.nwcdc.coop.

NWCDC took a special interest in how Idaho’s Bounty approach, or a customized version of it, could benefit other communities in the Northwest. NWCDC reviewed startup operations at Idaho’s Bounty and several other online cooperatives, including the inspirational Oklahoma Food Cooperative, which was the first online co-op for local foods. The NWCDC research was supported under the Farmers Market Promotion Program Grant Program, Agricultural Marketing Service, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The cooperatives turned to online ordering as a lower cost way to start up their businesses. Software is readily available, including some software that is “open source” and can be used without a subscription fee. There is little need for physical facilities. The online cooperatives typically deliver direct from producers to consumers and, therefore reduce or eliminate the need for a warehouse. The cooperative’s expenses are from trucking and distribution of the orders, administration of the ordering and payment systems, marketing and member outreach. A guide to starting an online local foods cooperative is also available on the NWCDC Web site. Six Rivers Market is another online cooperative. Located in the rural panhandle of northern Idaho, Six Rivers Market focuses on providing a year-round local market with as low overhead as possible. To keep operating costs down, the cooperative does not yet provide transportation. Producers drop off and consumers pick up orders at one central site. Six Rivers Market now serves about 200 members. Members point out that the benefits of online ordering are: • Effectively consolidates the volume and efforts of small farms to serve local consumers • Provides a year-round market for local foods • All products are pre-sold and timed for pickup, which is efficient and helpful to producers and consumers “The commitment of the members in all the cooperatives is inspiring,” says Diane Gasaway, executive director of NWCDC. “Together, they shared the costs and the risks of these startup businesses and together they realized the benefits. The people became co-owners to make a difference in their community. For them, it is all about local food for local people. “