Central Co-op

Amina Parker & Shelby Jors, Member Spotlight, Janurary 2013

Central Coop

The Central Co-op in Seattle is a member-owned grocery store open to all shoppers and located where the densely-populated Capitol Hill neighborhood meets the Central District. Late one mid-January afternoon Amina Parker, Director of Marketing and Public Relations, and Shelby Jors, Produce Manager, sat down with Tilth Producers in the Central Co-op’s offices atop the busy grocery. Beforehand Shelby gave a tour of the produce department, work areas, and modest cooler.

Amina has worked for the Central Co-op since its early days, and Shelby has served as Produce Manager for two years.

How long has the co-op been buying organic produce from local farmers?
Amina – As long as we have been a co-op [since 1978]. It is one of our basic values to support farms and communities. In today’s popular ‘locavore’ climate we are still doing that. We are 100% committed to the local economy. We are all about the network of support we provide for each other.

What percentage of your produce is organic, and how do you handle those that are not organic?
Amina – In the beginning we had to bring in non-organic. In the last 35 years we see how far we have come.

Shelby – In my most recent audit, 99% is certified organic. Those that are not include wild-harvested mushrooms and local farms that are not certified organic who chose not to because it is too cost-prohibitive. We do farm audits for these farms. I haven’t seen all farms yet, though I would really like to. The last produce manager did and passed on information to me. In the store, we have special handling guidelines: storage, cooler wet rack, a sanctioned-off area for non-organic produce. We must follow guidelines for non-contamination, and provide signs for customers.

What percentage of your local sales are direct from farmers?
Shelby – 25% of our sales, as an average year-round, are directly from local farmers. The rest is from bigger vendors, and they know we prefer local.

Who are the bigger vendors?
Shelby – The brokers we deal with include Charlie’s Produce, which has the Farmer’s Own label, and Organically Grown Company for their slightly different variety. It’s nice to have two different vendors for variety, pricing, and quality. We look to support companies whose values align with ours.

Have you noticed any emerging trends in farming?

Shelby – Farmers are now making known their effort for social justice in providing living wages for workers, a parallel to fair trade. [see the Domestic Fair Trade Association] A lot of farmers are already doing this; the stamp helps to get acknowledged and also helps for customers to know why their food costs a bit more. It is an exciting trend.
The amount of work farmers do is incredible. We know how hard they work, and it is difficult to hear customers ask why food is so expensive. We wish we could pay more for the vegetables farmers bring in.

What kind of certification documentation do you need from farmers?
Shelby – We need to see their organic certification documents, and we require proof of liability insurance.

Is there any room in the market for new farmers? How does a farmer start a relationship with your produce department?
Shelby – There are always new farmers rotating through; with some new start-ups all the time. We are open to working with anybody, and we have a form we email to new farms describing what we require regarding order and delivery. We still do one-on-one farmer relationships.

How do you coordinate sales with farmers?

Shelby – We communicate with emails. Sometimes a farmer may have merely two dozen bunches of greens. We consider that.

Most large grocers would not spend time to coordinate with farmers in that way. How much staffing time is allowed for coordination?
Shelby – We put a lot of staff time into supporting farmers. We have a commitment to work with them.

How do you coordinate with farmers for the coming year?
Shelby – In 2011 we had a meeting with representatives from farms discussing logistics and crops. Everyone grows similar things, and it works itself out. We didn’t need to meet in 2012. Delivery dates help sort out who delivers a popular crop. Pricing and quality has lot to do with it. We seem to be able to order a bit from everybody. We also order and try specialty products.

What other changes have you seen?
Shelby – More young people are getting into farming. It’s inspiring. On the consumer side, there is a kale craze. It’s the largest seller we have.

What are some of your goals?
Shelby – As produce manager I would like to highlight more aspects of the products and how they align and demonstrate our co-op’s values. A perfect example is fair trade, organic blueberries from Chile currently in the co-op. Beyond local and seasonal, I want to offer those products people do want, rather than having them go somewhere else. We vote with our dollars, and people can buy what they want. We take a role educating people and leave their choices to them.
It’s a tricky time for farmers who are certifying and we want to support those who are going through that three-year transition. Viva Farms is an example: their strawberries – people love them!
This year we will be will be doing a lot more up-front, meet-the-producers with more signage and vendor profiles.
Amina – Our producers are celebrities!

Do you think there is room for more farmers in our region?
Amina & Shelby – Oh yes, more room definitely. [emphatically!]

Are urban farms marketing their products through your store?
Shelby – Yes. Amaranth Farm and United Peoples Farm from Seattle Tilth. As a number of little farms, they put out just one fresh sheet. It is a cooperative effort. If more farmers could collectivize to present and deliver their product it would make it easier to work with small local farmers. It does take a renewed/different mindset.

What are some characteristics of successful farmers you have dealt with?
Shelby – There is a lot more to farming than growing, including:

  • Being more business-minded. Using email is the only way we can get orders in. Farmers present us with a fresh sheet.
  • Also, good quality control of product. We look through each box to make sure it is up to snuff. We will send back tiny products, those with bugs. If we see it week to week, we won’t order it any more. This is a reflection of customer standards.
  • Being on time with deliveries. It needs to be here when you say it will be, so we can stock it out. Timing affects the delivery area and cooler space too.
  • Communicating clearly.
  • Labeling boxes with what is inside and if it is organic, even if it says it on the box already.

What are some of the struggles that you have had?

Amina – We have done well at this location. We branded ourselves back to our cooperative community. We have retired all the debt last year from the move from our old location. We are reborn. We have to continue our market base and expand or shopper-ship (member owners and non-owners), plan for equipment, and a necessary side expansion. As our business grows by leaps and bounds we will need to make decisions about our location. As we look forward to increasing our sales, more equipment. We still have a ways to go.

Why are you a member of Tilth Producers?
Amina – Let me say it again: because we definitely want to be supporting our regional farmers. As far as our food system goes we want people to have choice about their foods, and bringing consumers closer to the producer is part of making that happen. It’s a synergistic process: we support farmers who support us, a mutually beneficial relationship that supports our entire local economy, keeping dollars closer to home.

Who or what are your inspirations?
Amina – In terms of food justice both Vandana Shiva and the late Wangari Maathai. These two women‘s voices and work have made a great difference in food justice. They represent some of the visioning of the global food movement and a look at our food systems.

Shelby – I have been involved in environmental issues as a whole. Now I am involved in food systems and see how much this impacts the environment. That background has been my inspiration.

Why organic?
Amina – It is the healthier option for people and the planet. We don’t want to be part of the system that puts chemicals into the environment. Studies may pronounce that organic food is not healthier, yet non-organic practices pollute the environment making it unhealthy for us. And, if you get organic – there is no question.
Shelby – Consumers know too. Despite refutations people still buy it and the numbers are growing.

Central Co-op is a certified organic retailer. According to the National Organic Standards, retail food establishments are exempt and excluded from organic certification (7 CFR Part 205 §205.101). However, many retail food establishments choose to obtain certification to increase consumer confidence in the integrity of the organic products they sell. Operations that do not chose to be certified must still comply with the National Organic Standards when handling organic products to ensure the organic integrity remains intact.

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By Jacqueline Cramer


Tags: Central Co-op, Co-Op, Grocery, Member Spotlight, Produce, Regional Farmers