By Ken Stern 

Happy 50th anniversary, Skagit Valley Food Co-op


August 2, 2023

A 1960s VW Microbus is parked outside the Skagit Valley Food Co-op

Ken Stern

SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE – Last Sunday member-owners and others were shopping at the Skagit Valley Food Co-op in Mount Vernon. At least one came in her decades-old Volkswagen bus. The Co-op celebrates its 50th anniversary this month with a celebration 4-8 p.m. Aug. 9 at the Skagit Riverwalk Plaza in downtown Mount Vernon.

First to last, for 50 years the Skagit Valley Food Co-op has been about its member-owners. That, and the international principles embraced when the cooperative was founded as a buying club in a Presbyterian church basement in Mount Vernon in August 1973. "We would not exist without our members," said Nicole Vander Meulen, the Co-op's marketing and outreach director, Friday.

"Let's start at the beginning ... YOU," the 2022 annual report proclaims next to the winding path of milestones depicting the organization's history from its humble origins to 2023. Today it anchors downtown Mount Vernon, occupying the block at Division and First streets. With more than 175 employees and almost $23 million in sales, it is one of downtown and Skagit County's largest employers.

Vander Meulen oversaw that annual report. She is thorough and consistent. "The cooperative model works," she says. "This radical reciprocal capitalism is a good way to do things. You cannot really succeed without the support of your community. It speaks to the model and to the community. Each one of the principles contains this righteousness."

She understands the essence of a successful co-op is being a part of something bigger than yourself. Vander Meulen cites the Co-op's greatest accomplishment of the last five years – after growing through the COVID-19 pandemic – as the board of directors' decision to grant $100,000 to Viva Farm and perpetuate young farmers. That is the seventh cooperative principle, concern for community, in action.

It is also the second principle, democratic member control, in action. An elected board sets policies and makes decisions for the over 23,000 member-owner households.

Last January, the Co-op celebrated the grant to Viva Farms at the Lincoln Theatre. Members filled the auditorium to acclaim their commitment to local farmers, securing its local food supply and the environmental and economic vitality and future of the Skagit Valley. The board established a Growing Good Fund and awarded it to Viva to help perpetuate organic and small scale farming in Skagit County.

Vander Muelen stresses that "part of the decision to support Viva was to finance food accessibility further up the chain. We donate frequently to hunger relief organizations, but the act of growing food right here is one way to help ensure that all people in Skagit County are well fed, forever (hence the name of the January event: Feeding Skagit Forever)."

While this long-term commitment is impressive, so is the size of this one-time gift. "I don't know of any other co-op that has given that much money," Vander Meulen said.

The Co-op's commitment to buying local means working with dozens of small accounts. Vander Meulen praised produce manager Ben Goe: "He knows all the farmers. The department is calling individual farmers on an everyday basis. We are going directly through the farms. It is easier for the farmers to work directly with (our staff). It is the right thing to do."

She cited buying Gary Moulton's entire crop of Taylor's Gold comice pears for years, as one example of "us buying entire crops or working with generation farmers and sourcing our produce directly."

Last year, 37% of produce sold came from local farms, nearly $1.4 million.

The annual report states that the Co-op buys from 585 local companies. That is $9.4 million of customer purchases, 40% of $23 million last year.

Not bad for an operation started by volunteers and run out of a church basement in 1973.

Asked to project into the next 50 years, Vander Meulen emphasized again: "We would not be here without the greater community. The support from people in the Valley and beyond is what makes us us. To sum it up: cooperation works is the main thing."


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