Local Food With a Big Twist: Oregon Super-Cooperative Takes Aim at the Corporate Food System

This co-op south of Portland wants to strengthen the local food system by helping local farmers cooperate instead of compete with one another.
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The worker-members of Our Table Cooperative celebrate on the farm. Photo by Shawn Linehan.

Narendra Varma loves chocolate. However, he’s also co-founder of Our Table Cooperative, a farm and grocery cooperative that aims to provide locally sourced, organically grown food to the city of Sherwood, Oregon. That means his love of chocolate is complicated.

In Our Table’s cooperative, people in different parts of the food world work together, negotiate with each other, and share decision-making.

“I just pretend that chocolate somehow magically appears on my plate,” Varma says. That self-admitted delusion doesn’t extend to coffee, which he doesn’t drink and therefore feels comfortable labeling “some nasty thing that has to be imported from all over the planet.”

But people all over the world want chocolate and coffee and other things that can’t necessarily be grown in their backyard. Varma and his co-founders struggled with the question of how to provide those staple foods to their customers.

“It was a very interesting, soul-searching moment for us internally,” he says. “What does local mean?”

So Our Table decided to adjust their definition of the term. When they encounter a food that can’t be grown in the region but that they want in the store, the team makes sure the importer is Oregon-based and has a transparent and direct relationship with the growers.

“No faceless transactions,” Varma says. “At some level, that is the core value of this project. It’s taking faceless transactions and turning them into interdependent relationships.”

Gianna Banducci, director of sales and marketing at Our Table, stares down a rogue chicken that has escaped the chicken yard. Photo by Liz Pleasant.

That’s the transformation in the food system that Our Table is pursuing by building a cooperative that stretches from farm to table—but also encompasses all the stops in between. The project goes beyond the “know your farmer” ethos of the local food movement to create an environment where you know your cheese maker, truck driver, and grocery store attendant too. In Our Table’s cooperative, people in different parts of the food world work together, negotiate with each other, and share decision-making—all with the intention of creating a fairer and healthier system.

It’s Our Table’s unusual structure that brings these groups of people together. Most cooperatives have a single class of members, like the worker-owners of Spain’s Mondragon, or the consumer-members at your local grocery co-op. But Our Table is a multi-stakeholder cooperative with three member groups—workers, consumers, and a group that Our Table calls “regional producers.”

The project is a startup—its grocery store just opened in November—and the regional producers are one of the several parts of the co-op that are still under construction. But the plan is clear: The regional producers will include local farmers and food processors who grow and make products that complement what’s grown at Our Table’s own farm. So far, some potential ones include a neighboring chestnut farmer, an artisanal cheese maker, and a community-supported fishery on the Pacific coast. The group’s goal is to have at least 80 percent of the products in the Our Table store come from their farm and their producer-members.

Joining the co-op is a good deal for the farmers and processors. Our Table pays 5 to 10 percent above market wholesale value for regional producers’ goods. The cooperative sells them under a signature red and white label at its store, signifying to consumers that the producers have been vetted and operate in Oregon, farm without pesticides, treat their animals ethically, and pay their workers fairly.

Our Table is on a mission to address the key failures of the modern food system.

In addition to better wholesale prices and preferential labeling, those who contribute crops and products to the store will be full members of the co-op, not just suppliers. They’ll have representation on the seven-member board of directors that Our Table hopes to have in place by November 2015. Five of those members will be elected: one from the regional producers, one from the consumers, and three from the workers. The board will also include two at-large members—for example, an accountant or a local resident—to provide additional expertise.

That complex board structure, Varma hopes, will help to facilitate the negotiations between different classes of co-op members—a signature of multi-stakeholder co-ops. It’s a model that has been growing in Canada, Italy, the United Kingdom, and other parts of the world. Referred to as solidarity or social cooperatives, these groups provide training and employment for the mentally ill, care for children and the elderly, or even operate hospitals and health care clinics. Like Our Table, these cooperatives include diverse classes of members. What guides them when they cannot agree on other matters is a shared objective, for example, to provide excellent care for the elders in their community.

“Multi-stakeholder cooperatives emerge because of a shared vision or mission,” says Courtney Berner, a cooperative development specialist at the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives. “That [mission] is about something bigger than ‘let’s sell some carrots.’”

For Our Table, the mission is to create what they call a “revitalized local food system,” one that is fair to the farmers and workers, benefits the environment, and provides nutritious, local food to the eaters of Sherwood, a city about 15 miles south of Portland.

In other words, Our Table is on a mission to address the key failures of the modern food system.

Why local isn’t enough

In our current food system, Varma sees struggling farmers who end up with just 14 cents of every dollar consumers spend on groceries and migrant farmworkers who pick our produce for pennies on the pound. And, to top it off, we as eaters get shortchanged with “a whole lot of really cheap, crappy, nutritionally poor garbage food, and a whole bunch of planet destruction to go along with it.”

To resolve some of those problems, the local food movement has pushed for community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs and farmers markets, which offer fresher, more nutritious alternatives to industrialized produce. Both have grown quickly: the number of farmers markets in the United States exploded from 1,755 in 1994 to more than 8,000 in 2014, while the number of community-supported agriculture organizations increased from 400 in 2001 to more than 1,400 in 2005, according to the United States Department of Agriculture Marketing Service .

Our Table acknowledges the need for modern convenience but proves it can be done locally, sustainably, and ethically.

“[These solutions] are premised on the idea that farmers should be independent little businesses competing with all other little farmers, or big farmers as the case may be, and the market will sort it all out,” he says.

Our Table goes beyond that model by helping those farmers cooperate instead of compete. And the co-op helps with other common problems in the farming business too. In a 2010 report examining local food systems, the United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service found that small farmers often don’t have the capacity to invest in marketing, to process or package their products, or to meet high-volume orders. All of these factors make it difficult for local food systems to meet the growing demand for their products.

In Our Table’s model, the cooperative can invest in trucks, processing equipment, marketing materials, and even farm supplies, bringing down the cost and allowing for more democratic decision-making on what services are most effective and needed.

“The key here becomes interdependence,” Varma says. “If we all want to thrive, each of us has to thrive.”

Bulk foods at the Our Table store. Photo by Liz Pleasant.

The Our Table farm and store

At the entrance to Our Table’s farm is a rustic building that serves as a co-op grocery store, a food processing facility, a kitchen, and a distribution hub all in one. Massive pillars salvaged from an old barn flank the entrance hallway and imbue the space with a sense of tradition.

As you walk inside, you’re greeted by a cozy sitting area nestled next to a stone fireplace. To the left, you can poke your head into the kitchen near the front door to see what’s cooking, or take a right into the grocery store. There are shelves of packaged foods, an abundant and colorful produce section, cases filled with meat and dairy, and rows of plastic bins containing bulk items like dried pastas, roasted nuts, and even cookies.

Near the register, customers can buy bottled beer and wine, or fill up growlers with locally brewed beer or kombucha. In addition to food and drinks, the shop offers a variety of herbal remedies and a section for household items like trash bags and sponges.

Although most of the vegetables are grown on the co-op’s own farm, things like sausage, cheese, and dried pasta are sourced from Our Table’s regional producers and larger suppliers.

The Our Table store, kitchen, and washing and storing facility are housed in this building. Photo by Liz Pleasant.

“The thing we’re trying to provide [for] our consumers is you can come in here and buy everything you need year-round,” says Varma. “And it’s all seasonal, Oregon, organic.”

The grocery overlooks rolling hills of farmland with a few scattered buildings, including the house where Varma and his family live. Our Table’s largest crop is blueberries, but its farmers also grow other fruits and vegetables, and raise chickens for both meat and eggs. A few hoop houses used to grow salad greens during the colder winter months stand at the edge of a field where tomatoes, carrots, and other veggies grow during the rest of the year. Behind the main building is a plot of land used as a pick-your-own flower garden in the summer.

“It was really fun last year how [the flower garden] became a nice gathering place for people,” says Karen Flowers (yes, that’s her real last name). Flowers was one of the first farmers to join Our Table. She works on the farm full time, mostly tending vegetable crops and the flower garden. This summer she hopes to add beekeeping to that list.

When asked about her experience as a worker-member at Our Table, Flowers explained that the co-op’s unique model has transformed the way she thinks about her work. “The sense of ownership you get changes everything you do,” she says. “I’m doing this for the success of my business. It’s very different than just showing up and doing a job.”

Generating a shift in perspective is exactly what Varma has set out to do. “Our biggest challenge is changing people’s habits,” he says. “Even some of our neighbors pull out the driveway and turn right instead of going, ‘Oh wait a minute, if I turn left, there is a grocery store right there.’ But, that’s starting to happen more and more.”

Jen Tobener, a worker-member of Our Table, prepares greens for sale in the co-op’s grocery store. Photo by Shawn Linehan.

Behind the model

Designing Our Table’s model took clever organization and management. Fortunately, Varma, a former Microsoft employee and self-described amateur investor, has an insider perspective on some of the problems with modern finance and technology.

“The concept of investment that Wall Street promotes is far too shallow and only concerned with the artificial construct of money and how to make it reproduce,” says Varma. “I’m not a Luddite, but my time at Microsoft certainly taught me that high technology is not designed to truly address the fundamental issues, concerns, and needs of squishy biological creatures like us.”

"If you come [to Our Table] and buy frozen lasagna or pasta, you know what the values are behind it."

Varma was born in India and came to the United States in 1986 to study educational technology at Brown University. He soon landed a job at Microsoft, met his wife, and worked there until 1998, when what he calls a “stock option-fueled financial windfall” allowed him to quit his job.

Over the next few years, Varma and his wife, Machelle, traveled the world, had two children, and began a new career renovating houses. At the same time, they became increasingly convinced that the modern-day food system was destructive to both the planet and the people on it.

“Having children and being responsible for their health, well-being, and nutrition definitely had an impact,” Varma says.

In 2010, Varma and his family decided to get involved directly and bought the 58 acres of farmland that would become Our Table for about $1.3 million. He’s also funded about half of the startup costs for the co-op, with the additional money coming from other individual investors and membership fees. After buying the farm, he created a land trust to ensure the property couldn’t be sold or rented for profit. And not long after that he founded an educational nonprofit. Although both endeavors are entities separate from the co-op, they work in tandem to bring local, organic, and sustainable food to Sherwood residents.

“It is essentially a land trust,” explained Gianna Banducci, director of sales and marketing for Our Table. “So no matter what happens to the co-op, the land will always be protected.” Varma and his family run the trust, called Community By Design, and the co-op pays a fee to lease the land. The fee has no profit margin and generates just enough income to cover property taxes and insurance.

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Our Table farmer Dawn Matarese stocks bread at the store. Photo by Liz Pleasant.

“A label that you own”

One thing that makes Our Table unique in the food movement is the co-op’s sensitivity to the eating habits of modern people. While many in the local food movement preach against the horrors of prepared foods (conjuring up images of Hungry Man TV dinners and SpaghettiOs), Our Table acknowledges the need for modern convenience but proves it can be done locally, sustainably, and ethically.

“Our biggest challenge is changing people’s habits."

“You know all of the fatigue people have in the grocery store trying to read between the lines? If you come [to Our Table] and buy frozen lasagna or pasta, you know what the values are behind it,” says Varma. “It’s not just another stamp or another label of natural or healthy or other meaningless things. It’s a label that you own.”

Although passionate about his work, Varma is quick to acknowledge that Our Table won’t transform the food system on its own.

“We don’t want to become national or international or even throughout Oregon,” he says. “We just want to be right here dealing with our community.”

While Our Table itself doesn’t seek to grow beyond Sherwood, Varma hopes the ideas behind the project will travel. If Our Table is successful in the years to come, it could help make a case for the food movement to adopt more cooperative models, especially ones that include everyone with a stake in the system.