Food Conspiracy Co-op is a 31-year-old natural foods store in Tucson, Ariz., with a dedicated membership base and a loud voice. Armed with community dedication and willing volunteers, the co-op has tangled with the big boys, lobbying natural foods manufacturers to clean up their products and offer a broader selection of products free of genetic contamination.
The National Organic Program has relieved some pressure. "The integrity of the word [organic] has been sustained," says Community Relations Manager Scott McMullen. "I feel good that you can trust organic." He says the same thing could happen with the word natural and with GMOs. "We live in a world of labels, and we expect to have the details—we want to know the main ingredients and if it's genetically engineered."
McMullen doesn't plan to let his guard down, even with the NOP in place. Plans are already underway to become a certified organic retailer and to train store employees to conform with national requirements. McMullen also plans to stay up to date on old and new food issues, and to communicate the information with other co-ops.
"It's up to us to take the responsibility," he says. In the late 1990s, Food Conspiracy implemented a massive information campaign, writing and calling natural foods manufacturers to find out if they used GMOs. The response was dismal—only 100 replied, with several of the larger companies avoiding the issue. As a result, many items were taken off the shelves and a new policy adopted: "Food Conspiracy will not knowingly carry genetically engineered foods or products containing genetically engineered foods."
In fact, Food Conspiracy has implemented its own labeling system. From the large selection of bulk foods to the lettuce in the produce section, every item has a simple shelf tag indicating GE risk. The yellow warning label "GE?" means the product contains ingredients at high risk of being genetically engineered. Green "Non-GE" tags indicate verification by the manufacturer that the product does not contain genetically altered ingredients. In cases where evidence is established for genetic modification, the product is removed from the shelves.
Natural foods manufacturers are beginning to listen. When the popular Boca Burger was removed, Boca sent Food Conspiracy a product that was guaranteed non-GE. In the end, it's about providing tools to make an informed choice, McMullen says. "People just want to know. All we're doing is giving them that information."
That kind of community service allows Food Conspiracy to compete with larger companies. In recent years, Trader Joe's and Wild Oats Markets Inc. have opened superstores with more products, bigger parking lots and greater convenience nearby. Food Conspiracy has been in the same spot since 1971, with none of the same amenities.
That doesn't faze managers and board members, McMullen says, and longtime members agree. George Milan, a current member of the board and a part of the co-op since its beginning, says "community is the heart of the co-op—it's not about price. Our real reason for existence is for our member owners and customers who like our style of store."
McMullen, who has also been a member since the 1970s, says it was the newsletter that first attracted him. In addition to food news, the monthly publication covers political and environmental issues not in the local dailies and occasionally features articles reprinted from the nearby Earth First! Journal office. Some member newsletter writers are looking at book contracts based on their contributions through the years.
The bulletin board is also a community magnet, the largest spot in town to feature everything from new political and food information to local music shows, events, rooms for rent and ride shares. "We could double the size and it would still fill up," McMullen says. "It's a reminder of everything we do, why we do it and who we are serving."
Making people the priority is something everyone involved in the co-op strives to keep in mind. "It's about being interrupted to go the extra mile," McMullen says. "Are we serving the interests of the community?"
Food Conspiracy is now considering expansion, but in 1991, an attempt to open another store ended in bankruptcy. Although this fact influences members' future decisions, the past 10 years have yielded positive financial results. The secret of their recovery? "Going back to the basics," says Milan. "The store that caused the bankruptcy was too big, too soon." Milan believes through focusing on the members and their needs, the co-op managed to turn their initial failure around.
He says you don't have to compete dollar for dollar with the big companies. "We emphasize the pieces that bring people to us ... and compete by having quality foods, choices, education and places that feel like a neighborhood store." That attitude expands the business and keeps people involved.
Because community is the keystone of Food Conspiracy's business, the company is also shoring up for lean times, saving money through the Twin Pines Cooperative Foundation. This organization allows individual cooperatives to invest money in a private account dedicated to giving money to local charities. Accumulated interest in the account allows Food Conspiracy to make donations even when times are tough. McMullen considers it a great opportunity—while it may leave less money to donate today, it allows the co-op to consistently support the community.
Food Conspiracy Co-op
412 N. 4th Ave., Tucson, AZ 85705; 520.624.4821
Size: 3,200 square feet
Average annual sales: 2.4 million (October 2001 through October 2002)
Best-selling departments: grocery (30 percent); produce (28 percent); bulk (22 percent)
General manager: Ben Koosma
>Community relations manager: Scott McMullen
President of the board: Scott Bird
Number of board members: 7
Number of members: 5,000 in membership roll (1,500 active); about 3,000 nonmembers who are regular shoppers (Members spend as much as nonmembers.)
Web site: www.foodconspiracy.org
Ephraim Mallery is a freelance food writer and editor in Denver.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 2/p. 66