The Tri-Cities is getting another shot to support a local food co-op.
Alan Schreiber of Schreiber Farms in Eltopia is leading the effort.
The fifth-generation farmer is leading a steering committee focused on opening a cooperative grocery store in Richland that will offer locally-sourced, predominately organic fresh produce, meats, seafood and other foods, personal care products and home goods.
Plans for the Tri-Cities Food Co-Op include a deli and eating area and small event gathering space featuring art by Pacific Northwest artists for sale. The organizers envision hosting live music, cooking classes, workshops, product tastings and meetings there.
Steering committee members also include Ginger Wireman, Eve McQuarrie, Melinda d’Ouville, Liesl Zappler and Dimple Patel.
The committee and its community backers have been working with the landlord on tenant improvements at 1420 Jadwin Ave., the former home of Atomic City Thrift.
It’s not the first time the 1960s-era building has been home to a grocery store.
In 1966, it was a retail food mart and in 1983 it was a Price Chopper supermarket. It also once housed a martial arts studio and Paws Natural Pet Emporium.
The co-op held a public meeting in January at the Richland Public Library to discuss plans, hear feedback and stoke member and volunteer interest. It hopes to open in early summer.
It will hold more public meetings as plans progress.
Schreiber, an organic fruit and vegetable farmer for 17 years, manages 120 acres north of Pasco. He sees an unmet need in the Tri-City region for a dedicated food co-op that focuses on fresh, local organic food in a grocery store format.
Schreiber said he’s surveyed local grocery stores and found that organic representation just isn’t there. In one store, he noted that there was 330 feet of conventionally-grown produce and 15 feet of organic produce. He reported that none of it was from local growers.
“Every city of consequence has a food co-op. Tri-Cities is by far the biggest town in the greater Northwest that doesn’t,” he said, noting that small towns with co-ops include Mazama, Tonasket, Orcas Island and Twisp.
In addition to farmers markets and other direct-to-consumer sales, Schreiber sells his produce to community food co-ops in Canada and all over the Northwest, such as Seattle’s 16 PCC Community Markets, Skagit Valley Food Co-Op and Bellingham’s Community Food Co-Op.
The model challenges the idea of what is considered local in a time when food is commonly transported thousands of miles to consumers across international borders, oceans and continents.
Or, perhaps it doesn’t, given that context. Entering local markets outside of the direct-to-consumer arena has proved challenging for Schreiber.
“It makes my head explode how much is produced here and it almost all gets shipped out of here,” he said. “You can’t get local organic stone fruit (in the grocery store) any time of the year here, even though it’s grown in this area. A lot of what’s grown in the Yakima Valley and Columbia Basin goes to packing houses and is shipped out of the area. We can certainly get a lot more than we are getting.”
“I can’t get my produce into a grocery store in Tri-Cities. To me, they’re just not interested. Grocery stores are not as interested in local-seasonal. The bigger they get, the more they want the guy who can deliver a certain quantity all year round,” he said.
He added that even if a local grocery store wanted to buy his produce, due to how the grocery supply chain works, the store would have to place an order with the distributor Schreiber sells his produce to.
All of Schreiber’s produce then goes to Seattle where it is shipped to western Washington markets, then the portion destined for Eastern Washington goes to Spokane to be distributed. Only then would the orders from Tri-City grocery stores be trucked back to Tri-Cities, he said.
“I want a store I can just drive 15 to 20 minutes to and drop off my produce. That’s the way it should be. The food has a longer shelf life, it’s fresher and it’s less food miles traveled and significantly less resource intensive,” Schreiber said.
Selling in a brick-and-mortar store is also a more stable market for growers, providing more visibility and a year-round outlet for their products.
Schreiber has tried other local venues for selling his produce, but they weren’t cost effective.
Last year he had a stall at the Public Market @ Columbia River Warehouse in downtown Kennewick and also held pop-up market stands in Ace Hardware parking lots with set days and hours of operation. Neither were profitable, he said.
“I think that we are underserved by our grocery stores. We’ve had grocery stores close down at the same time that our population has grown. If you look at the number of people per square foot of grocery stores in the Tri-Cities, it’s high. There’s a need for more of them,” he said.
The co-op-style store will operate at an organizational level similar to Kent, Washington-headquartered outdoor outfitter, REI. Its stores are open to the public but offer a lifetime member buy-in option for a reasonable one-time fee that provides members access to special sales, discounts and voting rights in board elections.
Tri-Cities Food Co-Op is accepting membership payments now to help fund the future co-op.
A basic lifetime membership is $100 per household, or $50 for active students and seniors over 65.
Payments may be paid by credit card over the phone at 509-266-4348 or via check made payable to Tri-Cities Food Co-op and mailed to Schreiber Farms, 2621 Ringold Road, Eltopia, WA 99330.
Founding members also are welcome to contribute at amounts of $250 or higher.
Part of the funding goal is to welcome 1,000 members.
It’s not the first time a food co-op has opened in Richland.
Mid-Columbia Market at the Hub operated from 2013-17 at 603 Goethals Drive, now the home of Pacific Pasta & Grill.
Schreiber and his steering committee were not involved in that market, though he said some former organizers have showed up at public planning meetings to show their support.
This time around, he feels the effort to establish a co-op will have a firmer foundation and more established business plan to ensure long-term success and viability.
Organizers plan to file paperwork to turn the co-op into a legal nonprofit. Schreiber said they have retained a lawyer, have articles of incorporation, a bank account, marketing firm and a formal website and job announcements in the works.
“We have a letter of intent for a lease and are in negotiations with a lender for a $350,000 loan,” he said.
The goal is to raise $600,000 from the community. In addition to membership payments, one large pledge of $50,000 has come through in support of the co-op.
Prior to the co-op’s launch, a governing board will be elected by the membership.
Two upcoming informational meetings are planned:
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