Lettuce Talk About Food Cooperatives

Lettuce Talk About Food Cooperatives
Jenny Van Zanten

With evidence of the morning’s labor under his nails, there’s a near-crisp sense of autumn as the farmer unloads melons from the back of his wide-bedded truck. This is the time when his long-summer-days’ work pays off. The Co-op has been anticipating this delivery. Last February, and the many Februarys prior, they told him they would take as many melons as he could deliver—folks in the Black Hills specifically request his organic produce. The ripe, deep green fruit now sits in heavy crates awaiting the shoppers’ arrival.

While this may seem like a romanticized version of reality, it is actually a scene which plays out seasonally at Rapid City’s food co-op. Breadroot Natural Foods Cooperative has been making such connections between grower/producer and consumer for sixteen years. To learn more about what the area’s co-op has to offer, I visited with Jeffrey Thouron, General Manager, Rachel Wester, Assistant Manager, and Anna Lopez, Floor Manager.

When you step into its clean, wide space, Breadroot immediately has the personal feel of a small-town grocery; the cashier at the nearby check stand extends a greeting to those who enter as Jeffrey explains, “A Cooperative is a group of people coming together to accomplish a common purpose. The common purpose of our natural foods co-op is to gain and increase access to local, organic or other healthy foods. We are owned by the people of our community, are independent, local, and committed to people”. The vibe of the market fully confirms this stated commitment.

“We source as much of our products as we can locally, over 200 currently”. Jeffrey tells me, while I explore the well-stocked isles of fresh produce, bulk food bins (including a bulk spice and herb station), an extensive frozen foods section, and a large designated personal care products area. When asked which items are staff favorite picks; paleo granola, paleo bacon (it doesn’t have sugar in it), local honey, local purple potatoes (they’re only purple on the inside), and kombucha kits (you can make it at home), are readily listed. “Also, the local meats, eggs and dairy here. We have some unique items such as chicken feet and cow bones that people love to use to make bone broth,” Rachel adds.

Jeffrey and Rachel continue, “We have guidelines for what kind of local produce, local eggs, or local meat we will carry. Our relationships with farmers or producers are important to us, and you can often see their smiling faces in our aisles.” We briefly visit with Maria, a long-haired woman tidying shelves, her infant daughter resting on her hip—taking your baby to work is encouraged. “The staff is friendly and genuinely cares about your needs and concerns,” Jeffrey adds. Perhaps part of this reason is: The Seven Universal Cooperative Principles. The seventh principle being: Member Education—the co-op’s team has attended “Organic College”.

Most of the store’s products are either organic or diet-specific. Anyone on staff can tell you whether the food in your cart fits your diet, is organic, or non-GMO, etc. Rachel, who is knowledgeable in a variety of diet requirements, points out the store’s easily identifiable labels, “Non-GMO verified foods are also very important to us. In preparation for Non-GMO month in October, we labeled over 500 products with a Non-GMO project label!” She conveys, “we also support people who have certain diets: gluten-free, vegan, paleo, plant-based, and so forth. Our staff can walk a new dieter around the store if they are suddenly on a low-sugar or vegan diet and need help. We support fair trade, which means that our labeled coffee, chocolate, bananas, etc. are produced in a manner in which fair prices are paid to producers in developing countries.”

Anyone can shop at the Co-op, you can think of it as a community grocery store, where every person is welcome to shop without a “membership,” but, there are advantages to becoming an owner, with details best explained by staff: “if you support the cooperative model and want to become an owner you need to buy shares of the business. Yearly ownership is two shares at $10.00 per share. Most people buy $20 of shares per year, while some people have opted to buy into the Co-op’s full ownership; a one-time purchase of 40 shares at $400.

These share purchases are the capital investment of our owners. When the Co-op is profitable, the owners receive a monetary patronage dividend. Profits are also distributed back into the Co-op to expand the store, purchase equipment, send employees to educational events, and build an emergency fund. Other companies need to rely on wealthy owners, loans or investment firms to accomplish this.” Additionally, since the co-op is free to make decisions based on what owners or customers want, if you’d like a particular product it is very possible they can quickly get it in the store for you. Often, chefs from high-end local restaurants who want to provide a locally grown ingredient in their creations, will come to the co-op to find it.

The enthusiasm of an individual doing work he enjoys surfaces, as Jeffrey, leading the co-op for four years as manager, says, “I am excited that I get to work with such a wonderful group of people every day. The dedication and talent of all of our staff from the newest cashier to the management team is unparalleled.”

Fallen leaves crunch underfoot, as I place a newly purchased melon in the backseat of my car.

Stop in and experience the Co-op for yourself.

Breadroot Cooperative


AAA South Dakota

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