Natural Foods Merchandiser

Portland Co-op Sustains Environment, Community

When the 1,600 member-owners of the People's Food Co-op in southeast Portland, Ore., decided it was time to give their growing store a much-needed overhaul, they made sure to stay true to their mission and values. "We realized it only made sense to redo the building in the most sustainable manner possible," says Financial Manager Miles Uchida, who also served as the project construction manager.

To Portlanders unfamiliar with sustainable construction materials and techniques, People's is simply an inviting spot to pick up ripe organic produce, a tub of locally made hummus or a moist vegan muffin. On closer inspection, however, customers discover the store is comprised of building materials that were chosen because they have the lowest possible environmental impact.

Because of budget constraints, Uchida had to pick and choose which ecologically sound materials he could afford. The finished project includes nontoxic paints; a solar chimney; recycled metal framing, floorboards and huge wooden beams; and a ground-source heat pump that reduces energy needs by 30 percent. "Two of the walls, and both the inside and outside sitting areas, are made of a hardened earth, straw and sand mixture called cob," Uchida says. In addition, the building is designed to collect Portland's plentiful rain and use it to supply the store's low-flow toilets.

After an 11-month renovation that was partly funded by the city's Office of Sustainable Development, the 32-year-old co-op not only doubled its square footage, it also became one of Portland's most prized "green" buildings. In the end, the project ended up costing close to $550,000. "Having a community of tradesmen and volunteers willing to aid in keeping labor costs down certainly helped," Uchida says.

Certainly the co-op's design demonstrates a commitment to sustainability, but so do its buying practices. A walk down the store's health and beauty aisle reveals locally made soaps and salves, an array of natural personal care products and a selection of supplements, tinctures and homeopathic remedies. Close by, there are refrigerators displaying meatless entrées and organic dairy products, shelves of biodegradable household cleaners and a full wall of bulk items.

But what really sets People's apart is its produce display, which is both carefully chosen and artistically merchandised.

People's Food Co-op
3029 SE 21st Ave.
Portland, OR 97202
Retail space: 2,400 square feet
Employees: 16
Members: 1,600
Annual sales: $1.3 million
Juxtaposed against the store's cool celery-colored walls are pyramids of Pink Lady apples, mounds of deep green kale and piles of bright red bell peppers. Nearly all of the produce is locally grown and certified organic. "People's has developed a separate classification for produce that comes straight from local farmers," Uchida says. This in-house labeling, termed "People's Produce," includes certified organic and noncertified growers. "Any noncertified producer has to go through a strict application process before their food is allowed in the store," Uchida says. In essence, these are farmers who are voluntarily adhering to the same regulations as certified organic producers, but who may still be in the process of becoming certified. Including such small-scale local farmers allows People's to offer customers fresh produce at lower prices while supporting local growers who are making the transition to fully certified organic farming.

Building community—and store traffic—are the impetus for the farmers' market held in the co-op's front yard each Wednesday. Customers enjoy buying fruits and veggies picked that day by more than a dozen local growers, while getting to know the people who grew them.

The weekly event makes the register ring as well. In the summer, Wednesday sales are 35 percent higher than sales on Saturday and Sunday, normally the busiest days of the week, Uchida says. He suggests that the farmers' market gives shoppers several reasons to wait until the middle of the week to visit the co-op: They can buy produce that might not be available otherwise, at farmer-direct prices—or perhaps they just enjoy the open-air market experience.

People's is located a few blocks away from a well-known natural foods chain, and another natural grocery is set to open nearby. "I think we will feel the impact the first few months after the opening, but the numbers will come back," Uchida says. "We offer something those bigger stores don't"—a commitment to sustainability and a mission to give back to the community.

Thanks to the store's new design, the second floor now includes meeting rooms available for community events ranging from activist meetings to lectures on sustainable agriculture to yoga and dance classes. A large information board outside the store provides space for announcements and notices about local issues and events, and the volunteer-enhanced store operations supply a way for members to give back.

Working at People's is not required to become a member. All it takes is a donation of $180, which can be spread out over several years if necessary, and is refundable should a member choose to leave the co-op. However, by donating between four and 12 hours a month stocking shelves, working the register or helping with the farmers' market, members can shave an additional 9 percent to 19 percent off their purchase totals.

"We could easily replace the volunteer labor with paid employees and not really feel it financially," Uchida says. "But that is what makes People's Co-op special." And considering that the store's membership numbers and yearly revenue continue to rise, it looks as though the community agrees.

Linda Knittel is a Portland, Ore.-based freelance writer who specializes in nutrition, fitness and women's health.

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