Co-op in Red Wing sets out to change food system
By Heather Thorstensen
Date Modified: 04/25/2012 9:18 PM
RED WING, Minn. — The Riverbend Market Cooperative in Red Wing will celebrate its grand opening April 20-21 and with it, co-op founder Clarence Bischoff says the city will become a more attractive place.
"When people are deciding on where to live, that is one of the main factors is: Do they have sources of good food?"
To Bischoff, who serves as the president of Riverbend Market's board, the concept of "good food" involves purchasing products from local farmers — approximately 25 farms, including Bischoff's, sell to the cooperative so far.
"If we support local farmers, we support the whole community," he said.
He was inspired by the book "The Natural Step for Communities: How Cities and Towns can Change to Sustainable Practices," by Sarah James and Torbjorn Lahti. It refers to sustainability principals such as minimizing the use of fossil fuel, reducing the amount of hazardous or poisonous substances in the environment, preserving natural resources and using products that don't involve the mistreatment of animals or exploitation of people.
"We have three criteria for everything in our store: Quality, sustainability and social responsibility," he said.
The cooperative is 6,000 square feet of produce, other food and personal items. Most of the items come from Minnesota and Wisconsin, though a "local" product is considered one from a five-state region.
The cooperative is open to the public. People can become a member by paying a $100 fee. Each member receives one vote in the way the co-op is run.
"We exist to serve the members," Bischoff said.
Approximately 215 members are involved now. The cooperative's organizers are hoping to reach 300 members by the end of April and 350 members by the end of May.
"If you have concerns about the food system, it's a way for you to put those values into action," Bischoff said.
He was looking for a way to change the food system when he started organizing study groups for "Natural Steps" five years ago.
He hardly knew anyone in Red Wing since he lives in Vasa, about 12 miles away, and worked as a social worker for Hennepin County.
A woman at the farmer's market suggested he start a food cooperative. After discussions, a group of people came together in 2007 to start discussing the idea. In 2009, they decided to implement their plan.
They've had good fortune in getting investors and support, including the use of their downtown building, across the street from the St. James Hotel, owned by Tom Dwelle. He allowed the cooperative to be inside his building without paying rent as it first started.
"A number of local people were very, very helpful," Bischoff said.
The doors have been open for about a year and a half. The cooperative had its soft opening Feb. 1.
Organizers are planning to hold classes at the co-op about healthy living. Bischoff wants to bring in Natural Steps classes, too. Eventually, the lower level's 6,000 square feet will be used for storage and distribution to serve local restaurants, businesses and possibly schools.
Riverbend Market general manager Sharon Becker says the co-op is unique because it will reach out to both members and visitors to Red Wing and seniors in the community.
"I think if we look at revitalization of a historic, downtown, main district it (will be) a hub," she said.
Becker agrees that the cooperative could help Red Wing attract new residents.
"A larger number of young families with small children are coming in, they're in tune to alternative food systems," she said. "They're looking for healthy ways to raise their children. This will help Red Wing stand out to them."