Shop the State: Food Co-Ops

Photo: Eduardo Soares

Writer: Hailey Allen

A grocery cooperative, or co-op, is a distinct type of grocery store that differentiates itself from regular stores through its cooperative ownership and democratic decision-making structure. They’re owned and operated by members, usually local, who pitch in financially and have voting rights about how things are run.

Co-ops usually source products locally and promote sustainability and fair trade. They aim to benefit their members and non-members by providing access to high-quality goods, lower prices and a shopping experience folks can feel good about.

Here in Iowa, several co-ops have built a loyal following over the years, winning over shoppers who appreciate their support for local farmers and eco-friendly priorities.

Wheatsfield Co-Op, Ames

How it started: In 1974, a group of people at Iowa State University formed a club to mail-order high-quality whole foods right to the campus. They pooled their money to purchase food from a natural food distributor in Iowa City called Blooming Prairie. Later, when the group wanted to open things up to the public to support healthy eating and nutrition, they formed a nonprofit called the Mutual Aid Food Association, which evolved into what is now the Wheatsfield Co-Op.

Products and services: If you’re looking for a new spot for lunch (or breakfast until 11 a.m.), the grab-and-go deli features cold and hot dishes made from ingredients right on the shelves. The grocery store offers products from more than 130 local and statewide growers and producers, including meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, and specialty items like coffee, barbecue sauces or soaps. The bakery offers made-from-scratch loaves, rolls and pastries. To keep things eco-friendly, food scraps from the deli are composted daily, and other compost buckets are located next to the regular trash cans.

One treat to try: Cado Ice Cream. This vegan, gluten-free, paleo-friendly ice cream is made from avocados grown in Fairfield. (Who knew!?)

Oneota Community Food Cooperative, Decorah

How it started: In 1972, a group of Decorah folks began making regular trips to Iowa City and Minneapolis to buy natural foods in bulk to share among themselves. They formed the Oneota Food Buying Club a year later, and members kept and managed the foods among their houses. By 1974, increased interest in the project prompted the group to purchase a members-only storefront, which expanded to a second location in 1978 and opened up to the general public.

Products and services: You’ll find typical fresh produce and grocery items throughout the store, as well as bulk, frozen and pre-packaged foods. There’s a wellness department that houses body care items like shampoos, lotions and nutritional supplements, and staff will special-order any wellness items the store doesn’t currently carry. The deli serves made-to-order sandwiches as well as grab-and-go meals and snacks. Oneota defines its local products as anything produced within 100 miles of the store into Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

One treat to try: Cheese curds from the WW Homestead Dairy in nearby Waukon, the self-proclaimed cheese curd capital of the world. Are they squeaky fresh? You’d better believe it.

Iowa Food Cooperative, Des Moines

How it started: This co-op began in 2008 with just 21 members. By setting up shop in the age of the internet, its purchasing model began a bit differently. During each designated “cycle,” members ordered their desired products and could pick them up all at once — a process they maintained even after purchasing a storefront in Des Moines. Twice a week, staff distributes food to pickup locations in Ankeny, Indianola, Panora, Pleasant Hill and West Des Moines, so anyone in Central Iowa can shop the co-op. The staff also makes home deliveries for members who are homebound or can’t easily get around.

Products and services: Anyone can shop at the Des Moines storefront, but only members get the pickup perk. If you visit the shop in person, you’ll find local produce, meats, cheeses, prepared food, baked goods, pet supplies, home goods, personal care items and a garden center.

One treat to try: Agri-Cultured Food from Dallas Center produces all kinds of fermented, probiotic goodies that promote gut health. Its home-brewed kombucha teas come in several flavors, so try them all and pick your favorite.

New Pioneer Food Co-op, Iowa City, Coralville and Cedar Rapids

How it started: Founded in 1971 from a natural foods buying club, this co-op quickly won over the hearts of Iowa City locals. The New Pi empire eventually grew so big, in fact, that its members opened a second operation in Coralville in 2001. A third branch sprung up in Cedar Rapids in 2014.

Products and services: You’ll find staples like freshly baked breads, eggs, pastas, frozen foods and canned goods, plus organic and locally grown produce at each New Pi location. If sustainability or animal welfare are important to you, you’ll feel good about your choices: They source all their meats from hormone-, antibiotic- and cruelty-free farms, and their seafood providers are certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council or rated either “best choice” or “good alternative” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. All three stores also offer catering if you call at least 72 hours in advance.

One treat to try: The house-made New Pi Chocolate Chip Cookies are $2 apiece. There’s a vegan option, too.

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