Local Food Co-op Catching On
Every week, in hundreds of Moore County kitchens, countertops and refrigerators brim with farm-fresh local produce.
Much of the credit belongs to Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative, a movement that, still in its infancy, has exceeded even the grandest expectations. In a recent week nearly four tons of produce was distributed to about 980 households.
“And we really have only scratched the surface,” says general manager Fenton Wilkinson, a former attorney who found his niche in sustainable community development nearly 20 years ago. “The challenge now is, we’re maxed out for physical capacity. ... It’s a wonderful conundrum.”
Eight years ago, when Wilkinson was new to the Sandhills, he first floated the idea of a food cooperative. He didn’t get much response, but every couple of years he tried again. In this case, the fourth time was the charm.
“It was a matter of patient persistence,” he says. “Finally it was the right time, and the ember really caught on and took off.”
A survey by local nonprofit Sustainable Sandhills last summer drew about 650 responses and indicated interest in a food cooperative was strong. Tim Emmert, Moore County’s community development coordinator, jumped on board early on; exploratory panels were formed; word spread; and the community response was enthusiastic. The movement seemed to be taking on a life of its own.
In September, self-described “foodie” Jan Leitschuh was in her yard, weeding her strawberries.
“Fenton came over and started weeding with me, which is always a good sign,” she says. “He said, ‘I don’t want to do this alone. Would you do this with me?’ He knew he caught me in my weak spot, which is local food. We set to work, applied for some grants and the rest is history.”
Wilkinson started a similar program in Washington state in the late 1990s, so he had some idea what he was getting into. But the robust response here surprised even him.
“We knew the demand was there, but we didn’t anticipate really what that meant,” says Wilkinson. “It’s easy to sit down and on paper say, ‘Yeah, we’ll deliver 500 boxes a week.’”
He soon saw for himself that 500 boxes is “a huge mountain of boxes” — seven large pallets’ worth. “That,” he says, “was my first hint of, my goodness, what have we gotten ourselves into.”
In the earliest stages, organizers traveled the state talking with leaders of other food co-ops and studying various models.
“The people were just very generous; they talked to us frankly about what worked and what didn’t, and that helped us start somewhere,” says Leitschuh. “We’ve since had to tweak; the learning curve is steep. It’s different handling produce in your garden than in bulk in a box on a hot day, still being accountable for the quality. It’s tricky.”
Sandhills Farm to Table is the only food cooperative in the United States in which the consumers, the growers and the staff are equal owners with equal voices — a model that creates what Leitschuh calls a “dynamic accommodation.”
“People aren’t demanding cheap food, and the farmers are knocking themselves out to provide the best they can to their neighbors,” she says. “We’re trying to be a cooperative in the literal sense of the world: to grow, distribute and eat delicious food.”
The hope, adds Ann McAllister, who oversees distribution at The Village Chapel location, is to create a win-win situation in which “every Moore County resident has secure access to sufficient local farm and food products.”
The co-op is not in competition with farmers markets, organizers emphasize. “What this does is guarantee the farmers’ purchase of their produce,” McAllister says. “Farmers markets are kind of iffy. It’s hard on the farmers to go out into their fields and then sit in the hot sun for several hours to sell their produce. And if it rains or something, people don’t show up.”
One of the co-op’s core values is “neighbors feeding neighbors,” and the co-op works hard to put a face to the farmers who provide the produce. This spring, growers, staff and several hundred consumers attended a member meeting and potluck dinner. When Leitschuh introduced the farmers, members spontaneously gave them a standing ovation.
“These things just don’t happen,” Wilkinson says. “Our farmers — they get it. They are owning it more and more every week, working with [the staff] and cooperating with each other.
“What really warms my heart are all the connections that are being made. A lot of aspects of the community are getting touched in a positive way,” he adds. “This is about empowering people and the community. If we cooperate and work together, we have an enormous amount of power.”
Jennifer Kirby is a local freelance writer.
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