Before Organic Was Cool

Food Conspiracy Co-op marks 40 years with plans to expand its local-foods mission

Food Conspiracy Co-op appears to be reaping some hefty benefits from the organic roots it put down more than four decades ago.

The co-op last month celebrated 40 years in the grocery business with vegan cake and organic milk all around. But when the celebration was over, it was back to work for the people at the bustling store at 412 N. Fourth Ave., which is currently in the midst of one of the busiest chapters in its long and colorful history.

Coley Ward, marketing director for the co-op, says the store saw record sales of nearly $3.4 million during the last fiscal year, a 13 percent increase over the previous year. Memberships jumped from about 1,200 to just less than 1,800 during the same period, a leap of nearly 50 percent—and the biggest increase ever.

"The local and organic-food movements are gaining mainstream acceptability. It's not just on the fringe now," said Ward. "People want to eat local; they want to eat organic."

Safeways and mega-farming may still reign supreme, but local and organic foods are carving out a niche for themselves. Ramiro Scavo's recently opened Pasco Kitchen and Lounge is drawing crowds with offerings created from almost all local ingredients. Acacia Real Food and Cocktails, The Dish, Harvest Restaurant, all three of Janos Wilder's restaurants and others have also made varying degrees of commitment to local and organic ingredients.

Local foods have made other inroads as well. Federal stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is helping the Tucson Community Food Bank improve access to fresh, local foods, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Farmers' markets have also sprung up at parks, shopping malls and numerous other venues, and officials say attendance at these markets continues to climb.

These local-food ideas were counterculture stuff when the small buying club that became Food Conspiracy first organized in 1971. In those days, members drove their own vehicles to Phoenix or California to make bulk buys of fresh produce and other items, storing the goods in a fabric store until they could be distributed.

People liked the idea, and by 1972, the group had rented a Fourth Avenue storefront. The store soon expanded into an adjacent space, and by 1985, the rest of the 3,300-square-foot space it occupies today was added.

The co-op opened the in-store Avenue Deli about three years ago, and the demand for its salads, soups and sandwiches has grown at a steady clip. Officials would like to add a dining area and expand the offerings, but there isn't any room left.

So Food Conspiracy Co-op needs to expand. A second location has been discussed at length, says Ward, but the right circumstances have yet to emerge. There's also talk of adding on to the current location, but that, too, is still in the planning stages.

"We're not just supposed to serve the people in the Fourth Avenue neighborhood," said Ward. "We're supposed to take this message to as many people as possible, and we're optimistic that will happen sometime this year."

An expansion of sorts is already taking place within the store. Food Conspiracy Co-op will soon be seeing a lot more vegetables from Sleeping Frog Farms, a biodynamic and ultra-organic outfit that moved to a 75-acre spread near Cascabel last year.

The store purchased what amounts to a large community-supported agriculture share from Sleeping Frog Farms, which guarantees a steady supply of veggies through the coming months. The money will also give the farm more capital to work with—which will make even more vegetables available in the future.

Adam Valdivia, from Sleeping Frog Farms, says baby spinach, greens, peas, carrots, beets, potatoes and other vegetables will be dropped off at the co-op once every week or two. He said the farm will also provide the store with vegetable seedlings and cut flowers when they're in season.

"We like what Sleeping Frog Farms is doing, and we want to help them reach their potential," said Ward. "If this first agreement with them works out, and we're very optimistic that it will, we would like to make an even larger commitment to them in the future."

That kind of commitment to local agriculture attracts people like Noel Patterson, one of the 600 people who joined the co-op over the past year. He says his membership has as much to do with eating good food as it does with contributing to a socially conscious food system.

"The co-op is the only place in town that is really walking the walk as far as supporting local food in this area, from their angle toward local food, to their moral commitment, to the way they do business," said Patterson, a 20-year veteran of the Tucson restaurant business who helped several restaurants install chef's gardens in recent years.

"My personal take on things is that the way you spend your money has more impact than the vote you cast at the ballot box," said Patterson. "Plus, food tastes much better if it's grown locally, and the nutrition is better, because it hasn't been off the plant as long."

Looking to the future, the co-op has a 10-year plan that includes working to increase the number of acres that are sustainably farmed in Southern Arizona. There's also talk of establishing a regional food shed where restaurants, farmers and grocery stores can connect.

Officials plan to continue with community outreach through happenings like the annual backyard chicken-coop tour, and other events that the co-op holds with local farms and groups like Slow Food Tucson. They'll also continue sponsoring events, like the solar-powered Solar Rock festival at Armory Park, on Sunday, March 27.

What about the possibility that the local and organic movements might fizzle and leave the co-op in the lurch? Nobody seems very concerned.

"As long as people care about being healthy and living low-impact lifestyles, our co-op will do fine," said Ward.