Case Study: Support for Startups Helps Alaska’s Burgeoning Co-op Movement

Case Study: Support for Startups Helps Alaska’s Burgeoning Co-op Movement

Columinate | 30-09-2012

Fairbanks_group_0There has never been a food co-op in Alaska before, and when the Fairbanks Community Co-op Market (known locally as the “Co-op Market”) opens its doors next year it will be a long-anticipated and heralded event not only by the community, but by cooperators in the lower 48 states. A food co-op in Alaska is breaking new ground in many ways, and everyone is excited.

The startup group formed, in part, in 2006 because a Fairbanks resident wanted access to natural foods for health reasons, especially when a major grocery store closed downtown in 2000. That meant that everyone living in town had to drive 10 to 15 miles to the nearest grocery store.

That was one inconvenience of note, but for anyone living in Alaska, access to fresh foods, much less anything locally grown or organic is unusually scarce. The growing season is short, and almost all of the state’s food supply arrives by barge in a shipping container. People in the lower 48 may grumble that fresh produce is so expensive in the winter, but in Alaska, it’s practically nonexistent. The startup group in Fairbanks is very motivated to provide a market for local goods; there is a profound need for what a food co-op focused on delivering healthful foods can do for their community.

Mary Christensen is the general manager of the co-op in Fairbanks (a locally-sourced general manager, she jokes). She explained why it’s so important that their community have a food co-op. Food security is very important in Alaska. If there’s ever a natural disaster or national catastrophe that cuts the state off from a food supply, people could be left without food very rapidly.

While sustainable local agricultural systems are important everywhere in the United States, in Alaska it’s critical. And yet, to date, there hasn’t been an easy route to creating one there. That’s where the Co-op Market is truly breaking new ground, to build a way for local agriculture to gain a foothold in the state. “It’s so important to everybody involved that we can support local producers, and have a place to shop where people have thought about the product line. We want to have meat from non-feedlot sources, wild caught fish from Alaska, and other foods without additives or high fructose corn syrup.” Christensen said. She said that there’s a hot springs in the state that could grow more local produce year round, and if there’s a steady market for what they grow, that would be a strong step toward more locally-sourced fresh foods.

Although Alaska is quite far from the lower 48 states, the co-op has also worked very hard to keep itself from being too isolated. Christensen and other co-op members have attended the Consumer Cooperative Managers Association conference and a startup conference sponsored by the Food Co-op Initiative and the Indiana Cooperative Development Association. They’ve also been working with Todd Wallace on the CBLD program, and have gained expertise from Bill Gessner, PJ Hoffman and Mel Braverman. Christensen and her group also toured numerous established food co-ops to find out more about their operations. “CDS CC has been there every step of the way in the last two years, especially helping with member loans and bank loan negotiations,” Christensen said. She also said that using experts right away is important, something she wished she’d known from the get-go. Before their startup group knew how to organize, they sold $10 memberships. “We spent many hours trying to straighten that out,” she said when they realized they’d need a lot more than that to finance a viable store (their project is $1.5 million). “I’d advise people to do their research on starting a co-op.”

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