Co-operative banks are common; we call them credit unions. But co-operative grocery stores are less common and much more special.

The Community Food Co-op is a democratically owned grocery store with two locations in Bellingham. It specializes in local, organic food, and its classes, community room, and many events create a gathering place for Bellinghamsters.

For the last 45 years the Community Food Co-op has been the epicenter of a local, sustainable food revolution. It has weathered hardship and emerged stronger than ever. As expansion of the downtown store wraps up this fall, this is the best time to become a Co-op member-owner.

Founded in the 1970s, the Co-op has outgrown its building four times. The first time prompted a move closer to downtown, the second to a larger building, then again to Forest Street, and the most recent—in 2009—prompted the construction of the Cordata location. Sales were slower than expected, and there was some fear at the time that the Co-op might become a victim of the recession. But as the community recovered from the recession, so did the Co-op.

Now this unique local institution is nearing the completion of another expansion—a retail Bakery with fresh baked goods and grab-and-go deli items with outdoor seating due to open on July 13th—across the street from the downtown store, and the Co-op is stronger than it has ever been. This addition paves the way for a full store remodel to follow soon. We talked with Community Outreach Manager, Adrienne Renz, about the Co-op and its role in the community.

The Co-op has a reputation for higher quality (and higher prices) than traditional grocers. Is that reputation fair or unfair?

It depends on what you’re shopping for. We work hard be competitive, and do price comparisons several times a year. If you compare organic, local apples to organic, local apples the Co-op offers a better deal in many cases. In the spirit of transparency we publish our price comparison results in February each year.

And we’re bringing the Fresh Bucks program to the Co-op starting on July 1! Thanks to our collaboration with the Bellingham Farmers Market, Opportunity Council, Sustainable Connections, the Whatcom Health Department, and the Whatcom Community Foundation, Fresh Bucks will match the purchase amount of any EBT-eligible purchase of fresh fruit and vegetables. I wrote all about it in our summer magazine.

The co-op offers a lot of support to local farmers. Could you talk some about the Farm Fund?

Starting in 2000, we have given a portion of our proceeds to advance local agriculture. It started as a fund to expand the market for local farmers, and it’s grown a lot since then.

In September we’ll be raising additional money to support the Co-op’s Farm Fund. Many farmers struggle to grow fast enough to meet the demands of the marketplace. So we’d like to award even more grants and loans to strengthen local farms and food systems.

We’re throwing a big Farm Fund-raiser Hootenanny and Eat Local Month Kick-off Party on September 6th at Boundary Bay, and everybody should come.

Though anyone can shop at the Co-op, members receive member-only appreciation coupons, access to the community rooms, and an annual dividend whenever the Co-op is profitable.

Joining the Community Food Co-op is easy and inexpensive. You should become a member, even if just to tell your friends that you’re a grocery store co-owner.

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