The Local Landscape

the co-op difference to defining local

What does local really mean? How can shoppers decipher between “local” at the co-ops versus other retail stores that are all touting “local” and “organic” at lower prices?

Maintaining Our Integrity

by Josh Resnik, CEO

News of the Amazon acquisition of Whole Foods rocked the grocery world earlier this summer and has been making headlines in newspapers ever since. Dozens of people have asked me what impact the Whole Foods – Amazon deal will have on our co-op. I think if we continue to focus on what we do best then it should not have a big impact on us. And when I think about what we do best, I go back to our mission: “Build Community by Developing a Strong Local Food System.”

Yes, Whole Foods might become smarter by integrating a loyalty program through Amazon Prime that tells them that people who bought Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” were more likely to buy Swiss Chard, or they might be able to deliver 365 brand canned tomatoes by drones in five years. But I’m not sure that is what our owners really want. I think there is real value in buying local — especially at a grocery store.

First off, local tastes better. Nothing beats a summer tomato from Tomato King in Albany, Minn. or a fall apple from Whistling Well Farm in Hastings, Minn. I just don’t see how larger scale and efficient national distribution systems beat having these farmers deliver their in-season gems directly to our back doors. With many of our national grocery competitors, even “local” produce leaves the state to travel to a centralized distribution facility before being delivered to the store. Those extra hundreds of miles and days in a transit make a difference. We don’t do that!

On top of that, any national chain is going to look almost exclusively to large farms to supply products — it is more efficient and easier. At the beginning of 2017, Whole Foods announced it was centralizing more buying nationally and giving less autonomy to local stores. That is only likely to accelerate with this deal. Given that half of our products are fresh (Produce, Prepared Foods, and Meat & Seafood), I think this gives us a distinct advantage. Second, I’m a strong believer that there are advantages for our community when we support local businesses. Studies show that a dollar spent at a local business has twice the impact on regenerating the local economy as a dollar spent at national chain. This typically means more jobs created with better salaries and better wages. It means more connection to local community institutions. Interestingly, studies show that other local businesses are helped more by local businesses in their neighborhood than they are by national chains. And also it means the profits of the business stay in the community. A report showed that John Mackey, the founder and CEO of Whole Foods, “only made $8 million with the Whole Foods acquisition by Amazon” — that is exactly $8 million more than this CEO made on the Wedge – Linden Hills consolidation. And, Jeff Bezos (founder and CEO of Amazon) apparently made a whopping $1.8 billion through the deal. We don’t have shareholders in Seattle or Austin making a huge fortune. Every owner of Twin Cities Co-op Partners owns the exact same number of shares (1) and they live almost exclusively right here in the Twin Cities. In this issue of The Cultivate newsletter we wanted to dive a little deeper into what it means to buy local. You will find an article by Rick Christenson, the head Produce buyer at Co-op Partners Warehouse, about our sourcing, an article by Rebecca Lee, our Director of Purchasing and Merchandising, about partnering with local vendors, and from fellow owners about what “local” means to them.

Taking Care of Our Farmers

by Rick Christenson, head Produce Buyer at Co-op Partners Warehouse

For over 40 years, the history of both the retail food co-op movement and the local, organic agriculture movement has been closely intertwined. Without each other, it is questionable if either would have survived.

As the idea of organics has grown and thrived, it has clearly penetrated deep into the grocery world. This has resulted in intense competition for the organic consumer’s dollar. But, it absolutely proves that we in the co-op and organic farming community were right all along! Everyone else is now starting to do what we have done from the start: support (or at least sell) organics!

But while organic foods have penetrated all markets, support for local farms and local organic farms has lagged far behind. There are some local foods in other stores, but the co-ops remain the place to go to find the most extensive variety and best quality, locally produced products.

One of the few large grocery chains that has exhibited at least some support for smaller and local organic producers over the years is Whole Foods Market. Everyone is wondering about how the recent sellout to Amazon will affect what they do. They have not yet communicated any change in expectations to farms with which they work. But the early signs are far from positive. The immediate price cuts they have initiated on some items may look good to consumers, but lower prices inevitably trickle back to farmers. And in an age where costs of production on the farm are continually rising, and small farms are struggling to survive, reduced revenues are not conducive to the long-term health of the regional (or national) agricultural community. Perhaps some farms can cut corners to make the lower revenues work, but is that what we really want? Lower farm standards, less attention to detail on the farm, lower wages, lower quality, fewer farms? The race to the bottom for prices is not a race that anyone really wins in the long run. Can we really afford to sacrifice the source of our food—the farms—in order to save a few dollars on prices?

We at Co-op Partners Warehouse remain steadfastly committed toward the goal of a truly sustainable food system in which local farms are fairly compensated for their efforts — both at growing great food, and paying their workers fair wages. We insist on paying prices to farms that reflect the true cost of production. And we go beyond the usual buying and selling of farm products that is the usual role of a wholesaler. We also provide an immense amount of logistical support to farms, and as such, we have become the central hub in the wheel of regional farming production and distribution.

In conjunction with the local organic farming community, the co-ops of the Upper Midwest have created a remarkable thing: a truly alternative, locally based food system that strives to be ecologically sound, socially just and economically viable. It is something that many of us may now take for granted. But what we have here is truly unique in this country. Nobody — anywhere — is doing this as well as we co-ops!

Cultivating Our Local Producers

by Rebecca Lee, Director of Purchasing and Merchandising

Minneapolis is rich in talented farmers, foodies and entrepreneurs. It’s a great place to be if you love food. We have been partnering with local vendors for decades, and it’s such a wonderful opportunity to have a positive impact on the local economy and get amazing food on our shelves. We were there at the beginning of Angie’s Boom Chicka Pop, Living the Dream Duck Eggs and Sweet Science Ice Cream. More recently, we have partnered with Double Take Salsa, K-Mama Sauce (my personal fave) and Kiss My Cabbage Sauerkrauts.

We view local vendors as true partners and support them in ways we don’t with national vendors. We assess everything about the line and provide honest feedback. The product is the most important part but certainly not the only consideration. It has to taste good and look good. The packaging has to be practical as well as attractive. The serving size, shelf life and pricing need to align with similar products on the shelf. Sometimes the price point is just too high, and we might suggest a smaller size in order to make it more appealing. Many of our vendors come from farmers’ markets or restaurants and might have a devoted following that can warrant a slightly higher price.

We also talk about distribution, as it can be a real hurdle for startups. We are so fortunate to have Co-op Partners Warehouse (CPW) as a resource and encourage vendors to reach out to them directly. CPW is such an amazing incubator for local vendors that are just getting off the ground. They provide a lot of the same feedback on product, pricing and packaging, but also have a great deal of experience working with new vendors and can help them along their journey. Many local brands were launched through CPW and some have moved on to national distribution.

We have many long-standing relationships with local vendors, and so many have a great story behind them. We highlight local products in many ways, such as including vendor profiles at the shelf, photos throughout the store and on the wall right behind the registers. But the best resource for local vendor information is the staff. They are always trying new things and love to share their knowledge and passion with our customers. One way they do this is through Staff Picks. You can find these recommendations right at the shelf.

We are serious about local and truly want our vendors to succeed. We set up a plan at the very beginning that includes instore demos, promotions and sales goals. We often highlight new products in our Fresh Flyer and try to put them on sale to encourage folks to give something new a try.

At the co-op, local has always been about supporting the spirited entrepreneurs in our own neighborhoods. It’s about finding the best quality, most nutritious food that is grown the closest to home. It’s about building trusted relationships with nearby farmers and producers and making sure that they are taken care of. Each co-op purchase strengthens our food system and sustains the network of eaters, workers, farmers and producers that are a part of it.

What local means to our community

Every time you shop at Linden Hills and Wedge Co-ops you make a conscious decision to support local. We want to hear from you about the importance of local food in your life. Stay tuned for details on social media, our website, enewsletter and in stores on how to participate in this ongoing local food story! Here’s what some of the members of our community had to say.

Stephanie A. Meyer @stephanie.a.meyer

“I travel to other cities often for work and eating away from home always makes me appreciate how incredibly lucky we are in the Twin Cities to have our local co-ops, offering a bounty of locally grown and raised produce and meat. As a health-focused cooking instructor, I am so grateful for this connection — via The Wedge — to our local farmers and producers.“


Kim Ly Curry @kimlycurry

“To me, local means both accessibility, peace of mind and community giving. When I shop local, I am able to receive and give back at the same time.”


Brooke Hopfauf @thrishedrootsenou

“Eating local is such a wonderful way to connect with your community and support local businesses. Purchasing locally decreases our ecological footprint by using less packaging and shorter transit lines. Beyond that, fresh food retains more of its nutritional value and flavor!”


Geevie and Sophia Wood @sustainyoself

“On our Instagram page, we share about our transition to a zero-waste lifestyle (where one creates no trash and sends nothing to a landfill). Through this journey, we’ve learned of many things every individual can do in his/her everyday life to help the environment. Buying local, for example, is a great place to start. While buying locally sourced products definitely supports the community and helps small businesses thrive, it also supports the environment as well because it requires less transport and reduces carbon emissions. We hope to keep spreading sustainability through social media and to educate people on the importance of buying locally and helping the environment.”


Lindsey Hamilton @lindspiration

“To me, local means supporting the best of the best — local produce picked at its peak, small businesses that are truly making a difference, and building a creative and inspiring future.”


Hannah Barnstable @sevensundaysmn

“One of the things we love most about food is the community that gets built around it. Our happiest memories are of us around a table, surrounded by friends and family. (And of course, an epic meal.) There’s something magical about breaking bread with loved ones — whether its over a lazy Sunday brunch, traditional holiday supper, or an impromptu al fresco meal. Food = love = community.”


Amber @zerowasted.mn

“To me, local means eating food that is grown and raised right here in the Midwest. Local means I can put a face to the farmer and have an opportunity to learn about their farming techniques and environmental ethos. It means I can spend my hard-earned grocery money supporting someone in my extended community and enjoy the yummy fruits of their hard work.”

Back to Cultivate Fall 2017 articles

View Cultivate Fall 2017 PDF