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Grocery store embraces cooperative principles

by Luann Dart

Organic produce from food co-opWhen Jim and Angela Kambeitz, Bismarck, buy a cantaloupe at the BisMan Community Food Cooperative, they know exactly where it was grown. It is fresh from the vine in Jonathon and Hannah Moser’s 2.5-acre garden near Streeter.

While the full-scale grocery store offers a wide variety of healthy foods, locally grown fruits, vegetables, meat, milk and eggs also fill the shelves. Here, shoppers are connected to food produced within North Dakota. The co-op’s groceries are often just hours away from the source – the lush garden, the egg-laying chickens or the grass-fed steer – and local food is designated with a tag, sometimes with the producer’s name.

“A food co-op is more than just a grocery store. It’s an idea about what healthy food is. It’s an idea about a healthy relationship between a food producer and the consumer,” says member Bill Patrie, who was one of the leaders in founding the cooperative. “It’s more than just going to get groceries. You’re supporting a very positive cause and I like that.”

The BisMan Community Food Cooperative opened its doors May 15 in Bismarck, as a vision of a group of local producers and consumers who wanted more from their grocery store.

Cooperative supporters included Basin Electric Power Cooperative, Capital Electric Cooperative and Tri-Energy Cooperative in Bismarck, and the National Information Solutions Cooperative and the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives in Mandan. Lori Capouch, the rural development director of the Rural Electric and Telecommunications Development Center in Mandan, offered technical advise.

The member-owned store operates under a set of three guiding principles, including offering healthy, sustainable foods, empowering community members and creating a strong local economy.

“Everything we sell is more of a healthy alternative to what people are used to when they go to the grocery store,” explains manager Randy Joersz. The store strives to offer organic, non-genetically modified foods free of artificial sugars or high-fructose corn syrup.

The store also strives to be environmentally, socially and economically sustainable. For example, all cardboard and plastic is recycled, and there’s not a plastic bag in sight at the checkout counter.

“We try to be as green as we can. It’s centered on empowerment, kindness and generosity,” Joersz says.

The grocery store works with about 35 North Dakota producers who supply the store with everything from honey and eggs to milk, meat and fresh produce.

“I can point to the map where they’re all from and they’re very good suppliers,” Joersz says. All the store’s beef, pork, lamb and buffalo meat is provided by North Dakota farmers. That allows Joersz to know exactly how the meat is produced and voice the store’s particular needs to the producers.

“It’s amazing the quality of products they provide us,” he says. There are challenges, however, to accepting locally grown produce.

“What you can take to a farmers’ market isn’t necessarily what you can take to us. We’re dealing with the urban population,” he says. However, misshapen fruits and vegetables which won’t be accepted by a consumer can be used as ingredients in the Co-op Cafe, a deli that offers menu selections and a full salad bar and smoothie bar. During the winter, the store will turn to a regional supplier to keep seasonal items in stock. Meanwhile, the store relies on producers like the Mosers.

The Mosers, who are members of Dakota Valley Electric Cooperative, started Forager Farm in 2014 with a belief in the local food culture.

“It’s a new and upcoming local food scene here in North Dakota, so we knew we’d be some of the first people who would be working to make it more mainstream,” Jonathon says.

With an intensive gardening system, they make weekly deliveries to the food co-op, including lettuce, kale, purple spring onions, cucumbers, zucchini and 2,600 pounds of melons during the store’s grand opening week in September.

With about five crops they knew the store would purchase, the Mosers also planted their garden to fulfill the subscriptions of their own 65 community-supported agriculture (CSA) members. They deliver to CSA members in Bismarck, Jamestown and Hazen each week, and supply food to the Jamestown School District. They also supply produce to the Terra Nomad cafe, with a portion of the garden planted specifically for that chef’s needs.

The Moser garden brims with eggplant, colorful peppers, frilly celery, colored carrots, kale, broccoli and brussels sprouts, ready for picking and delivery to consumers.

It’s that type of connection with the producers that the Kambeitz family appreciates.

“We wanted to support our local community as it builds a stronger local food economy, and we wanted access to a larger variety of fresh organic foods. The cooperative is key in making important connections between people in our community and local farmers, and we wanted to support the cultivation of a healthier, more conscious community from the ground up. Organic farming is what our grandparents did and being part of the co-op is one way to support continued generations of local organic farmers,” Jim says.

The cooperative started with an equity drive to raise capital. Cooperative members pay a one-time membership fee, with dividends paid to members during profitable years. The cooperative now has 2,600 members and 35 employees.

“It took a real leap of faith for those people when they met at the truckstop in 2012 to start a cooperative,” Joersz says. “It had to be very visionary. You can easily lose that dream when you go out and try to raise that money.”

While anyone is welcome to shop at the cooperative, members receive certain benefits, such as discounts or member-only specials. Members also receive exclusive updates on the freshest food being delivered from local farms, such as the load of melons from the Moser farm.

“They feel invested. They feel like they have an ownership and have a say. They are part of something bigger,” Joersz says.

“This coalition of people lets us go above and beyond conventional and design something that is really inspirational and fun,” Patrie says. “The cooperative model has been tested ... It’s about the only alternative you have to make a project like that work.”

Jim and Angela Kambeitz also appreciate the cooperative business model.

“The cooperative business style is truly community-building in every sense. This is very natural to North Dakotans. It keeps our money here in our local economy as much as possible,” Jim says.

 The cooperative is overseen by a nine-member board of directors, including Brenda Stone, Bismarck, who also volunteers at the cooperative when needed. She’s grateful for the store’s overwhelming support from the community.

“They love that a cooperative with healthy food choices has finally opened in our community. It is great that a person does not have to be a member to shop at the store. Everyone can shop here, as a member there are just a few extra perks and discounts,” she says.

The store has become more than just a grocery, as chatter floats to the beams as shoppers and employees visit over the counters and with each other.

“You feel special, because they know you’re a member. You won’t walk in there without somebody greeting you and smiling,” Patrie says.

“It feels like family. There is an energy that you do not see or feel in other stores. Everyone is friendly, helpful and glad the store is finally here,” Stone adds.

“Our family of four enjoys our regular visits to the cooperative for food, deli items, fresh juices, snacks and groceries. It is one of our favorite places and each time we go there, we run into great people, old friends and we feel at home. In addition, it’s a pleasure to shop in a space that is so aesthetically pleasing. It is truly a game-changer for Bismarck-Mandan,” Jim adds.