Its often said that food can bring members of a community together through growing, sharing, cooking and dining with one another. In the past few months, Ive witnessed the topic of local food itself bring together Penn State students and State College residents.
This spring, students from the community, environment and development major at Penn State Itha Cao, Samantha John, Cierra Freeman and I teamed up with the food cooperative steering committee that emerged from Januarys Spring Creek Homesteading community potluck to collaboratively explore the potential to open a food cooperative in State College.
Our first meeting was filled with energy and enthusiasm. It was tempting to jump right in, envisioning our dream cooperative: a place that would provide shoppers with healthy, clean and local food products; a gathering space for sharing music, movies and educational workshops; and a beacon of community spirit and camaraderie in State College.
However, over the course of our first meetings, we had to remind ourselves that we were still at Phase Zero, during which our most important task was to conduct preliminary and foundational research.
One question kept looming: Can the State College community support a food cooperative?
With this query in mind, our CED team developed a survey to assess current shopping trends and local interest in food cooperatives among State College residents.
We decided to target populations most likely to be interested in being a member of a food cooperative. The survey was administered online through the Spring Creek Homesteading blog and listserve, through local food organizations Facebook pages and in person at the Centre County Buy Fresh Buy Local/Good Food Neighborhood CSA fair, at the Penn State HUB, at both downtown State College farmers markets, and at the Boalsburg farmers market.
During the survey period, we received 235 responses from respondents primarily between the ages of 18 and 44, about 75 percent women.
When asked what shoppers are looking for in a grocery store, the most important factors were availability of a wide variety of foods (89 percent), price (74 percent), availability of local food (72 percent) and organic food (61 percent).
The survey also asked what elements of a food cooperative are most important to prospective members. An overwhelming number of respondents (87 percent) said the most important aspects of a food co-op would be to provide affordable access to local food, followed closely by the coops role in building a sense of community (72 percent).
Our overall assessment of the preliminary survey results is that there is certainly enough interest in the State College community to support a member-owned food cooperative.
Moving forward would mean building upon the results of this survey. The food cooperative steering committee has been meeting the first and third Wednesdays of each month at Websters Bookstore Café; named the co-op project the Friends and Farmers Cooperative and put up a temporary blog at friendsandfarmers. wordpress.com to make the survey results and other data accessible and to track progress until the official co-op website is up and running.
Your feedback and opinions are still important; the survey has been reopened at the new blog, and there are lots of ways to get involved as the organizers dig into the next steps for legal incorporation, business planning, marketing the co-op and growing the membership base.
After all, a co-op isnt just your average grocery store its a place to shop for food that is of the community, by the community and for the community.
Greta Righter is a 2012 graduate of the Penn State community, environment and development program, currently interning at Luna Bleu Farm in South Royalton, Vt. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.