The launch of The Sugar Beet Co-op

By Audrey Roen

I’ll be honest, the last time I thought about a food co-operative (aka, co-op), I imagined a place where hippies discuss the rights of bees and eat organic food off recycled solar panels. But, I’ll be honest again, I knew very little about co-ops and the people who start them then.

After talking with Dominican psychology professor Dr. Daniel Beach, I know more about the Oak Park food co-op, The Sugar Beet, the nuts and bolts of the business, and the benefits of shopping there as a college student. Coming to Madison Street near Oak Park Avenue, The Sugar Beet expects to open its doors for business in March 2015.

I spoke with Dr. Beach, who is on the board of directors for The Sugar Beet. I wanted to investigate exactly what a co-op is and how, as a college student, I could benefit from it. The Sugar Beet, as Dr. Beach stated, is, “A business, a for-profit organization, but it’s a business that’s owned by its various members.” Dr. Beach said The Sugar Beet focuses on purchasing locally-grown, organic and sustainable food in bulk so that members who shop there receive discounted prices while giving back to the environment and the community. Everybody wins!

Unlike grocery chains like Jewel and Meijer, co-ops offer individual memberships that generate revenue and give individual members a say in how the business is run. Beach said co-ops value input from their members. Beach said, “They can let us know what their needs are.” Members have the chance to earn money if the business does well. Members decide where profits would be best utilized to grow the business. Dr. Beach said that after a pre-determined amount of time, “The profits (should there be any) are distributed among the members of the organization.” Yes, you can make money by being a member of a co-op!

Members also receive benefits like gift certificates, discounts, email updates and more for supporting the co-op. Furthermore, Dr. Beach stated that co-ops are able to do friendly business, economically and environmentally. Large grocery chains often spend more on the transportation of produce, requiring the purchase and consumption of more petroleum products. To deliver those “fresh” strawberries year round, stores must put thousands of dollars into fuel expenses and chemical preservatives to prevent food from spoiling en route. Furthermore, getting the food from so far away means fewer business opportunities for farmers from your hometown. The Sugar Beet aims to buy locally through farmers and other vendors within a 200-mile radius of Oak Park. This saves the co-op money by reducing the cost of travel, it supports local vendors, increases freshness of produce, and it reduces the amount of energy consumed to get the goods.

Extending their environmental aims, The Sugar Beet will be located in a certified sustainable space at 812 W. Madison in Oak Park. The space is leased from a group called the Interfaith Organization who rehabbed the old building into a low-income housing complex, offering low rent apartments and on-site job training classes for their tenants. But, the city of Oak Park required the organization to have retail space on the first floor in order to move in. The Sugar Beet was notified of the organization’s goal and soon, as Beach said, “our mission dove-tailed very nicely with their mission.” With this available location in mind, The Sugar Beet board members assembled to discuss the possibility of starting a co-op—a possibility that turned into a reality when they signed a ten year contract, rent-free.

So, this all sounds great, but where do I come in? I’m just a broke college student. I can’t afford a membership, I don’t cook for myself yet and I don’t need all this fresh food. Dr. Beach to the rescue! He claims co-ops give students a unique chance to be involved in an organization focused on community. Beach said The Sugar Beet will help keep money in the local economy by supporting farmers in the Chicagoland area. Students will also know exactly what they’re buying: fresh produce and products that haven’t been tampered with or chemically altered. Furthermore, Beach said students can benefit from the educational branch of the co-op through cooking classes and nutrition education. Students have the chance to, “relearn things that your great-grandmother might have known but have been lost in our highly processed food society.” It’s good to know some of us are still interested in the old-fashioned ways of cooking from scratch.

Aside from produce, there will be a coffee bar, a deli bar serving sandwiches and home-made soaps, and more. As for being broke, Dr. Beach understands $250 can be a hefty membership fee and says those who cannot afford this fee can petition for a lower rate. The membership rate is adjustable based on income and is a one-time fee paid only at the beginning of the membership. Of course, if you’d rather not become a member, Beach says the shop is always open to anyone looking for anything, “from diapers to beer!”

Dr. Beach urges anyone with interest in The Sugar Beet to visit their website at www.sugarbeetcoop.com and to consider shopping there when the store opens this March. To become one of the 700 current members would help get the Sugar Beet closer to its goal of the $1.8 million they need to open its doors. They are so close to opening now and there is still much to be done, but at least now I know there’s much more to a co-op it than bee rights and recycled material.

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