Natural Foods Merchandiser

Co-op's Eat Local Challenge inspires far beyond the store

Our industry draws people with ideals who want to work for a cause. Sometimes this enthusiasm evaporates in the daily grind of running a grocery store. But when employees get a chance to embody the store’s mission in their everyday lives, powerful things can happen.

The mission statement of the Kootenay Co-op Country Store in Nelson, B.C., Canada, reads: “Promote community involvement by cultivating a cooperative, sustainable, organic way of life through, [among other things], encouraging a healthy local economy.”

Employees had the opportunity to do just that in August 2007 when the co-op sponsored the Eat Local Challenge. Inspired by The 100 Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating (Random House, 2007) by Vancouver writers Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon, community members and staff pledged to consume only locally grown food for the month, using their own definitions of local.

Twenty-three employees (out of 50) rose to the challenge. They swapped recipes; ate local-food lunches created by a deli coworker; and identified more than 100 local suppliers in the produce, grocery, deli and personal care departments. They also provided a list for shoppers taking the challenge, and wrote testimonials for the co-op newsletter. In the process, they created excitement and a heightened sense of community—with their store at the hub.

For Assistant Produce Manager Matt Lowe, joining the Eat Local Challenge was a given. For years his department had held annual meetings with local growers, created distinctive signage for their products and enthusiastically talked up the produce to customers. Lowe pledged to eat food grown within a 100-mile radius for one day a week, but he quickly hit a snag: He couldn’t find any locally grown grains.

In years past, the fertile valley of the Kootenay River in Creston, 70 miles east of the co-op, grew enough grain to not only feed the local population but also to export to distant cities. But at the time of the Eat Local Challenge, those grain fields lay fallow. Lowe called a friend who had contacts with farmers in the valley, and the Kootenay Grain community-supported agriculture project was born.

While fruit and vegetable CSAs are widespread, a grain CSA is unusual. Nevertheless, in 2008, the first year of the project, 200 members purchased shares of hard and soft wheat, spelt, oats and lentils. And last year, membership tripled and crop production quadrupled.

In a further twist on the model, local businesses also buy shares in the Kootenay Grain CSA. Kootenay Co-op and another natural retailer in town sell the grain to customers by the bag, while several bakeries incorporate it in their products.

The Eat Local Challenge gave Kootenay Co-op a way to engage staff and enhance its image as a shopping destination, yet the positive energy generated from that idea continues to inspire the whole region. Who knows what can happen if you unleash the passion and creativity of your staff in your own “eat local” project?

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