July 2020

Cooperative Cuisine

Fredericksburg Food Co-op cultivates community spirit

On April 1, sustainably produced grocery items from all over Virginia got together for the first time in Fredericksburg.

There was steroid-free pork from Orange, grass-fed beef from Goldvein, organic lettuce from Culpeper and vintage wines from Purcellville.

Enticing ice cream sandwiches from Richmond showed up and succulent strawberries from Hanover even made a brief appearance. This was no April Fool’s joke, it really happened—at the grand opening of the Fredericksburg Food Co-op.

The new co-op food market, located at 320 Jefferson Davis Highway, opened its doors that early spring morning, realizing a dream nearly six years in the making.

MODEST BEGINNINGS

Cooperative Hall of Fame member Rich Larochelle, who retired as senior vice president at the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corp. after a 40-year career in the electric co-op world, is a founding member and sits on the Fredericksburg Food Co-op’s board.

“The co-op model takes a little time to establish,” Larochelle says. “We have around 2,200 members now, but it all started with only five back in September 2015 when we incorporated.”

Larochelle says that he and a small group of like-minded vegetarians originally wanted to support local agriculture and bring healthier food options to the Fredericksburg area.

“We started recruiting people at the farmers market in Hurkamp Park and others, and began offering cooking classes and educational meetings,” he says.

According to Food Co-op manager Chris Roland, Larochelle was able to work financial miracles, including having the co-op become the first of its kind in in the U.S. to qualify for a Small Business Administration guarantee on a $1.4 million bank loan.

In all, the co-op was able to raise $4.3 million, mostly through member loans and buy-ins, in order to make the brick-and-mortar market a reality.

“What Rich has accomplished is nothing short of miraculous,” Roland says.

“Chris is no slouch himself,” Larochelle counters. “We were lucky to get someone of his caliber, with 20 years’ experience in the food co-op business.”

CO-OP PRINCIPLES

Adhering to the co-op model, the Fredericksburg Food Co-op is owned by its members, who purchase lifetime memberships for $200 and receive discounted prices and financial dividends based on profitability.

Because the store adheres to the Seven Cooperative Principles, its profits are primarily utilized to help bolster the development of the local economy, and to address community needs.

“We want to embed ourselves into Fredericksburg and become a new community resource for the area,” says Roland.

“At the same time, we want to close the loop on food waste, and support local growers so that the dollars stay here. We are trying to accomplish this by offering the best selection of local and organic produce in town.”

Ann Lewis, director of member services and community relations at Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, and her husband, Taylor, are both members and avid customers of the Fredericksburg Food Co-op.

They say the market brings a wide variety of “fresh, clean foods” to the Fredericksburg area. “I have a love for cheese,” Ann Lewis says, “and I enjoy the variety of cheeses available there that I have not seen anywhere else. The cheeses pair nicely with the local organic produce that greets you as you enter the store.”

According to Larochelle, the Lewises were instrumental in the co-op’s development.

“They both participated in our co-op owner loan program,” he says. “They made a loan to the co-op along with 250-300 other co-op members. Co-op owner loans were the primary way that we raised funds for opening.” Larochelle says now that the Fredericksburg Food Co-op is a reality, he encourages everyone to shop there.

“You don’t have to be a member to shop here,” he says, “but you certainly are welcome to become a member; and we certainly would like to see electric co-op members shop here. I assure you, it’s worth the trip.”