Beet Street, an enterprise formed to bring tourist dollars to downtown Fort Collins, recently announced a “Homegrown Fort Collins” event for late September. It has something to do with eating local. And by that they mean eating at local restaurants, or eating from local farms, or drinking local beer. But among its partners for the event it lists a Greeley public radio station and a Texas organic grocery chain.
I’m sure Beet Street has its reasons. KRFC and the Co-op are community-run outfits that probably can’t manage the scale of commitment or contribution that the NPR affliliate and Whole Foods can. And let me add that I applaud Beet Street for these efforts at doing more to celebrate who we are rather than who someone thinks we ought to be. To say nothing of its generous underwriting at KRFC. Cheers Beet Street.
But at the same time, I worry that “local” will soon become as meaningless as “green” as national corporations get on the bandwagon and somehow co-opt another grassroots movement. Especially the local food movement.
In this new landscape, will there even be a place anymore for the Fort Collins Food Co-op?
To answer that, you have to know where the Co-op came from, and why it ever mattered. It’s a story that starts with one of our earliest grassroots organizations, the Point.
In 1970, Bear Gebhardt started The Point in Fort Collins because he didn’t want to go to Vietnam. It was a choice the Federal judge gave him when he blew off his draft notice–2-5 years in jail or community service.
The Point, says Gebhardt, was his community service. And he stayed with it for 9 years.
It started as a nonprofit to provide drug counseling for teens. “Heroin was getting popular on the coasts, and everyone was worried about it coming to Fort Collins,” he says. Working loosely from early Dr. Andrew Weil writings, The Point encouraged kids to be more reflective. “We would say, ‘look, you’re obviously searching for something…” he says, and then trails off. “We did it all rather clumsily.”
But that didn’t stop him from trying. Over time, the Point housed several community efforts from its old brick mansion at Mulberry and Remington:
A small legal service opened, because drug use is a legal issue.
And a medical clinic, because drug use is a also health issue. The clinic offered prenatal and well-baby care as well.
It was all rather open, from what I can tell.
“I don’t recall that financial need had to be demonstrated as a condition of receiving services,” says John Gascoyne, now host of KRFC’s Imagine Action. “I had some minor medical service performed one night and swept the upper floor of The Point offices as payment. ”
Ya, and it just got more and more hippie from there.
They collected newspapers and hauled them to Denver for recycling–because no recycling existed in Fort Collins. And they got the City to put up these thumb signs, along College Avenue, where you could solicit a shared ride during the first gas crisis. Hitchhiking with the City’s blessing.
Some of these programs fell flat (hitchhiking signs) and others blossomed (legal and medical services were picked up by bigger nonprofits and governments).
Begatting the Food Co-op
Activists were naturally drawn to The Point, forming what Gebhardt calls a tribe. A brown rice-loving tribe, apparently. Because they soon noticed that while weed and alcohol were abundant in Fort Collins, you couldn’t buy a sack of unmilled rice anywhere.
So, in the Winter of 1971, 30 of them each kicked in a dollar and sent a driver to Erie to buy the first bag. Within a year, an active buying club took up more and more floor space at the Point. It soon outgrew its closet. Then one room and then two. Gebhardt says they thought about moving operations into the garage behind The Point, but the Health Department thought otherwise. The tribe would need to start a proper store.
And so it did. In 1974, the club incorporated and opened a shop at the old West Side Market at 700 W. Mountain. It proved a good location and the business made money. In fact, it soon outgrew the building.
Next, the Food Co-op moved to the current building on 250 E. Mountain in 1978. But things didn’t go so well there. Honestly, the Food Co-op seems to have mostly struggled ever since.
Do we still need the Food Co-op?
Over the years, the Food Co-op tried to draw in more customers, more seniors, more students. It struggled to address its inadequate parking. Even keeping track of money proved challenging. And most recently, it’s had to compete with bigger and better organized organic commercial markets, like Whole Foods, Sunflower, Vitamin Cottage.
To make matters worse, it built a reputation as being unconcerned with shoppers. Members couldn’t agree on a management structure; staff with unwashed hair hardly looked up from their magazines as you shopped; food rotted in the produce bins. Maybe that didn’t used to matter. But with the Seattle coffee house lights, generous parking, and perky helpers of Whole Foods just down the street, the Co-op came to symbolize everything outdated and stuck about hippies.
So why not just shut it down?
Here’s why. Here’s my 5 reasons why the Food Co-op still matters:
1. The Co-op is doing its damnedest to turn around right now. It’s cleaned up nicely. With an impressive new manager, the produce, layout, and the help is now pleasant and fresh.
2. It’s focused on buying local in a way no organic supermarket can. “We can buy from a farm that’s only an acre large,” says Chad Chriestenson, Co-op outreach and education. “The bigger markets can’t.”
3. It’s flexible enough to partner with other downtown businesses. While I was in the back room, management talked about splitting a shipment of apple cider with another small store. Soon after, Co-op manager, Lynn Chriestenson, held up a pile of checks she’d written and said, “I’ll only mail about a fourth of these.” Another fourth she’ll walk around town, paying downtown businesses with whom the Co-op has established partnerships. “The rest I’ll pay out at the Farmer’s Market this weekend.”
4. It’s ours, it’s local, and we have a history.
5. Meanwhile, Whole Foods is having a Wal-Mart effect on small towns all over America, says Every Kitchen Table. Once vibrant community-supported agriculture and food co-ops are buckling everywhere, and the smallest farmers are losing out.
And maybe we’re losing out too. I’m not sure. But I think it’s time to try the Food Co-op again and see if we can make it work–before “local” in Fort Collins is little more than a loosly defined label at a just-like-the-next-town-over strip mall organo-market.
Credits and post script
The idea for this story came from Allison Fink last February. Thanks Allison!
Bear Gebhardt still lives in Fort Collins. After he left The Point, he became a stock broker. He’s author of the book Enlightened Smokers Guide to Quitting and lists his current profession as “Monk” on his Facebook page.