When Melissa Weyland encountered her first food co-op, it was love at first sight.
Working now as the regional pool manager for eastern and central Wisconsin for farmer-owned cooperative Organic Valley, Weyland previously lived in southwest Wisconsin and often visited the Viroqua co-op. She quickly became enamored with its fresh produce, clear source labeling and support of local farmers.
When Weyland saw Oshkosh was working to create its own food co-op, she knew right away she wanted to get involved, first as a member and then as a board member.
“I love the cooperative model because it really is a model that is for the greater good,” she says. “When we are making decisions, we’re always thinking about the community of member-owners.”
The effort to launch the co-op has been five years in the making, starting as the brainchild of a University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh student. First steps included recruiting 100 members, conducting a feasibility study and working closely with the Food Co-op Initiative, a national co-op mentoring program.
Fast forward to the present, and the organization has surpassed 750 members and begun searching for a location for its store. Members have the option of paying a one-time fee of $180 or a monthly payment of $11 per month for 18 months.
Lizz Redman, culinary manager for The Howard and a member of the co-op board, says membership drives the project’s timeline. The next threshold is reaching 1,000 members, which would prompt the beginning of a capital campaign. When it reaches 1,200 members, the co-op can open its doors.
The food co-op will be a full-service grocery store about the size of a typical Walgreens, Redman says. It will have the usual food store amenities such as a meat and deli counter, but it will be owned by members rather than a corporation. Both members and non-members will be welcome.
“There’ll be awesome local and organic produce, but at the same time, we’re going to offer conventional as well,” she says. “We want this to be a place where everyone can shop, and we don’t price to be a limitation for people. There’s certainly a food justice part of our project.”
Just as important is the store’s location. Organizers are seeking a site in Oshkosh’s central city, a U.S. Department of Agriculture-identified food desert, meaning people leave the area and spend grocery dollars elsewhere. This can mean people purchase food at corner stores and places that tend to have fewer healthier options, Redman says.
While Wisconsin is home to food co-ops in cities including Madison, Milwaukee, Stevens Point and Eau Claire, Oshkosh would be the first in Northeast Wisconsin.
“Oshkosh Food Co-op is so unique in that no other food co-op exists around here,” Weyland says. “Let’s be the change, and let’s lead the way.”
Redman says the co-op will focus on sustainability in all its facets, including economic, environmental and social. The store will incorporate features such as green space and bike racks, and the board is focusing on how the store’s purchasing will affect the local economy. For example, it will give local farmers another place to sell their goods besides farmers markets and restaurants.
People receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits should feel comfortable shopping there, Redman says. In addition, the co-op will ensure food sourcing is clear — who’s grown it as well as how and where.
While the process can seem long for those eagerly awaiting its arrival, getting a co-op off the ground typically takes five to seven years because it’s a community-driven initiative. Redman says she fields a lot of questions about why it’s taking so long, but exciting steps lie ahead, including identifying the store location and hiring a project manager.
When it does arrive, the co-op will bring jobs as well as provide a place to find healthier options, Redman says. “This is really special in that it’s an all-volunteer project. It is truly being built by our community, and it’s going to be a great addition to our central city.”