Karma is the only food co-operative to which I have ever belonged. Until a few years ago, everything that I knew about co-ops was, therefore, based on Karma’s model. When my friend Lisa and her family moved to Nelson, BC, I was curious about how the co-op she joined there operated. If you have an interest in another food co-op, the Kootenay Co-op in particular, then I invite you to read on.

A decade ago, my family said goodbye to our good friends Lisa and her family, who left Toronto and relocated to the southern interior of BC. Lisa and I have stayed in touch and keep up with news about each other’s broods and our common interest in all things food. You see, when she lived in Toronto, we used to cook for each other’s families and take cooking classes together.

During our Skype sessions I learned about her local, the Kootenay Co-op, a co-op with many things in common with Karma, as well as differences.

Both co-ops came into existence in the 1970s: Kootenay in 1975 and Karma in 1972. Both are member-owned with similar missions to strengthen local food systems in a community-based approach. Both co-ops make education a pillar of their business model by providing access to informative classes, workshops, and publications such as on-line blogs. Both co-ops make relationships with their suppliers paramount.

Kootenay has had a planned and significant growth over the past few years. During the past decade, Lisa has been part of its expansion phase that saw it go from an 8,000-square-foot store to a new purpose-built edifice with 21,000 square feet of grocery, produce, and wellness retail departments, plus a butcher, delicatessen, and kitchen space. Staff now number 175 people for sales of $16 million last year.

To put in context the customer base for the Co-op, Nelson has a population of close to 10,000, according to the 2016 Canadian census, and is 44 km away from the next biggest commercial centre of Castlegar. The Co-op is the only one of its kind in the greater Regional District of Central Kootenay, which has a population of 60,000. Kootenay Co-op competes with four grocery stores in the city.

For a one-time $50 fee, members are able to purchase deeply discounted case-lots twice per year, receive 10% off purchases over $500, and receive discounts on the cooking classes (members pay $30 vs $35 for non-members), wellness lectures, and workshops. The membership fee also supports local food producers; provides grants, scholarships, and donations to community groups; and pays their staff a living wage.

Another benefit of membership is the “patronage refund voted on annually by the board and based on amount spent by the member in the previous year.”

Lisa regularly picks up bulk dried beans, oats, some spices, and produce there. She also likes the case-lot sale, which is “great for larger quantities of things like rice.”  She also takes advantage of the 10% discount on cases of items at any time.

In addition to the store, Kootenay Co-op also boasts an industrial kitchen, where the cooking classes take place. The plans for the new building also included a cafeteria-style restaurant that Lisa says “has been a massive hit.” She tells me that if I ever get out to Nelson, “we will most certainly go there for lunch!” This is an offer I hope to take her up on sooner than later.

Lest we feel small after reading about Kootenay Co-op’s success over the past few years, Lisa helps temper those feelings with her words: “The new co-op is incredible, though some, I think, miss the old days (before our time here) of a very small, member-run operation.”

P.S. The food co-op isn’t the only non-profit enterprise in town. “We are a city of co-ops,” Lisa says. “It’s just the mentality here, I guess.” Others include the Kootenay Carshare Co-op, the Civic Theatre, and Kootenay Co-op Radio.

By Barbara Walters

Photographs by Greg Maslak

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