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Upper Valley Food Cooperative: Providing More Than Just Food

Sep 20, 2017 05:09PM ● By Victoria Pipas
Maybe you’re already an avid shopper at the The Coop Food stores in the Upper Valley, where you can buy local organic goods as well as imported foods from around the world. Even so, you may not be aware of the Upper Valley Food Cooperative in White River Junction, Vermont, a local gem of a food store upholding community values as it connects farmers and families. Read on to learn more about the Upper Valley Food Co-op, then plan your visit.

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the "Summer of Love" in San Francisco, so it’s a good time to reflect on the generation of the co-op system in America and all that it stands for. The impetus for the current Upper Valley Food Co-op was a club-run store in West Lebanon in the mid twentieth century. Members of the “Do It Store” (encouraging self-sufficiency and sustainability) wanted to increase regional accessibility to unprocessed foods. The system of pre-ordering healthy foods expanded throughout Vermont and New Hampshire, and in 1976, the Upper Valley Food Cooperative was officially founded.

The current co-op is located in a 6000-square-foot retail space at 193 North Main Street in downtown White River Junction. Driving by, you’re welcomed by a bright red, juicy-looking red apple sign declaring the organization’s location. The co-op’s current membership is upwards of 1300 active members, and their outreach extends well beyond those who frequent the store regularly. 

The co-op’s mission statement describes the organization as “a community-supported natural foods market which promotes the local economy, is committed to sustainability, and enriches lives through education.” Their four-part policy includes the goals of offering the people of the Upper Valley: 1. Access to healthful, affordable food; 2. A supportive market for local farmers and producers; 3. Education and resources for sustainable, healthful practices; and 4. A place for community connection.

This four-part aspect of the community aim is visible throughout the store. Fresh, mostly local produce is delivered by farmers to the store once a week, stocking it with seasonal fruits and vegetables. You can also find locally baked goods, regional cheeses in a welcoming arrangement, and piles of local chocolates, caramels, and other sweets at the checkout line. If you’re shopping hungry, head over to the Sweet Lilac Deli, the in-store food counter that provides a freshly made selection such as cornbread, chowders and lentil soups, fresh salads, and sandwich specials. After a snack, head over to the bulk section of the co-op. Bring your own containers—bags, plastic containers, glass jars—to reduce your carbon footprint as you fuel up for family meals. 

Another important aspect of the co-op’s impact is its education and community outreach. The co-op supports and manages the White River Junction Community Garden, which offers small plots to local residents for seasonal rent. The garden’s goal is to increase local food security by increasing awareness of ecologically friendly growing practices. You can attend workshops in the garden, or just volunteer to work there if you’re eager to dig your hands into the dirt.

Another opportunity at the co-op is the Sew-op program, which allows people to reconnect with the fibers and clothing they are wearing. Drop in at open hours, bring items that need alterations, and learn the skills to fix them yourself! Also offered are quilting, crocheting, and embroidery classes, and even classes for children on making clothes for dolls.

We spoke to Sue Miller, who has been at the Co-op for more than a decade, in a variety of different capacities, and who now holds the position of co-general manager. She describes that the wide variety of classes is proudly hosted by a range of different volunteers and sometimes paid employees, from all walks of life.

In the past, the Co-op has offered workshops in partnership with the VINS center, providing outreach education programs about wildlife and the environment. Furthermore, the Co-op has hosted Dartmouth College graduate students in a program called BrainBuzz, in which the students offer their expertise on a wide variety of different subjects, and are given the opportunity to practice instructing community members. In this way, the Education programs at the Co-op are a beautiful intersection of high levels of expertise and local community engagement and betterment.

The courses and workshops vary throughout the year, and often align seasonally. Upcoming courses include a “Mushroom Walk,” in which participants are led on a mushroom scavenge with a volunteer member, who then teaches the group how to cook their edible finds. Other courses might include food safety skills or information about health and wellness.

“The goal is to offer life skills,” says Miller. “I’m glad that we offer such a range of classes, and we really bring in people with expertise, who are often local volunteers.”

Fees for the classes vary; some are free, while other, more resource-intensive classes charge, at a discounted rate for members. Depending on the content and skill level of the course, some are family-friendly and some are not, but the Co-op does proudly offer a host of courses just for kids, such as the Sew-op Children’s classes. Your kids might enjoy making simple clothes for their dolls or stuffed animals, or even just learning basic sewing skills!

Check out the co-op calendar for more special events, and bring your family so they can also get in touch with the foods they’re eating, the materials they’re using, and the community they’re building.

What’s your favorite Upper Valley Co-op product or event? Please comment below! 

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