by Ashley Lodato / Bluebird Grain Farms staff writer
In these times of corporate conglomerates, independently-owned businesses are a welcome prospect and employee-owned co-ops are downright refreshing. Sno-Isle Food Co-op (Sno-Isle) located in North Everett, WA, is one such breath of fresh air. The 21-year-old non-profit retail food source is democratically governed by a board of elected trustees representing the more than 5,000 families who belong to the co-op and is dedicated to offering high-quality local and sustainable products.
Connecting individuals with the local food system are paramount for Sno-Isle, says Retail Manager Stephanie Davis. “We can help people understand the importance of and value in sourcing food directly and regionally. Sno-Isle offers a sensory experience that other grocery stores lack. We want people to feel connected to their foods and their communities.”
Davis grew up in the kitchen with her grandmother and says that her grandfather always had an impressive tomato garden, giving her an early taste for the perfection of a home-grown, sun-ripened tomato: a product rarely found in large mainstream grocery stores but readily available in season in co-ops like Sno-Isle. Although her immediate family was not focused on local or organic foods, says Davis, “they did put a lot of energy into preparing whole foods for the family to enjoy together. Those hours spent in the kitchen as a young person undoubtedly shaped my love for food and my desire to improve our food system.”
Sno-Isle’s retail department‘s practices reflect this desire. The buyers’ top priority is in “sourcing local and sustainable products.” With the goal of ensuring the ongoing preservation and betterment of the Earth, buyers consider “biodiversity in farming, products packed in compostable materials, and companies that recycle limited resources” when making their sourcing decisions. Sno-Isle is also committed to organic and non-GMO foods, even going so far as to require all products that are found on the Top Ten GMO crops list be certified Non-GMO or be in the process of gaining said certification.
Sno-Isle is invested not just in the health and longevity of individuals, but also that of communities. To that end, Sno-Isle offers classes & events, recipes, tips for healthier living, and it supports and sustains local non-profits through efforts like its Register Roundup program (members can round their purchase totals up and Sno-Isle puts the difference into member-selected non-profits) and its grants program, to which local community organizations apply for funding. It also promotes local growers and artisans by selling and displaying their work, and features an Artist of the Month. Says Davis about this community focus, “A strong commitment to community is a base value of any true co-op. Co-ops are formed when community members come around an idea and work together to create a viable solution that serves the identified need. It’s about the WHOLE serving the individual and that individual supporting the whole.” Sno-Isle takes this very seriously, says Davis. “We work to provide high-quality food and education for our owners, their families, the community at large, food producers, farmers AND our staff.”
Sno-Isle works collaboratively with its members to best serve their needs. “We’re always learning from our customers,” says Davis. In fact, Sno-Isle started carrying Bluebird Grain Farms products when a customer introduced co-op staff to their grains. “A few years ago a customer came in raving about Bluebird Grain Farms,” Davis recalls, “and the rest is history. We presently carry a variety of whole grain products in bags and in bulk, as well as some of the fabulous mixes and flours that Bluebird offers.” The products introduced by the customer proved popular and, says Davis, other customers who try the products “keep coming back!”
This is just one example of the autonomy that Davis and her colleagues have at Sno-Isle: the ability to respond quickly to a customer suggestion and better serve all customers. The co-op structure makes this possible. “We aren’t tied down by off-site corporate rules,” says Davis. “Instead, we are able to work in a way that allows us to truly reflect the needs, desires and assets of the community we are serving.” In fact, one of the line items in Sno-Isle’s mission is to “encourage members to contribute and participate.” The Bluebird connection shows that members are indeed active in the co-op.
As for those who harbor the notion that food co-ops are exclusive and expensive, Davis dispels the myth. “Our knowledgeable staff can show you how to shop the store economically. There is something for everyone here. We are family friendly [and every child who visits the co-op gets a free banana!].” Davis urges customers who care about their food’s quality and sourcing to visit Sno-Isle. “Come in!,” she says. You can be a part of making a difference.