- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 8, 2006

FREDERICK, Md. — Move over, tofu. Beef has come to the food co-op.

As mainstream supermarkets have increased their offerings of organic product in recent years, many of the natural food cooperatives that opened decades ago have become more like those supermarkets, offering meat and fish counters, in-store cafes and coffee bars.

Co-op advocates say the changes reflect the desires of their member-owners and a need to compete with everyone from Whole Foods to Wal-Mart for organic food sales. They also say co-ops still offer something the national food marketers don’t: ownership in a community organization dedicated to locally grown foods.

“More and more consumers are realizing that organic doesn’t mean weird,” said Tena Meadows O’Rear, who helped found the Common Market cooperative in Frederick, Md., with five other families in 1974. “It simply means food grown in more traditional ways.”

She said the increased availability of organics at conventional stores — including organic meat — has helped the co-op by exposing more people to such products. Those who then come to the Common Market’s bright new store seeking a broader range of organics can learn how buying local helps sustain the dwindling number of farms in Frederick County, Mrs. O’Rear said.

Common Market will hold a grand opening July 29 of its new store featuring fresh meat and seafood, a deli, cafe, olive bar and 36-foot gourmet cheese island. The 18,000-square-foot space, open to the public, is four times bigger than its old quarters across Route 85. It presents a formidable challenge to My Organic Market, a privately owned regional chain opening a store in Frederick later this year. The nearest Whole Foods Market, part of a national chain based in Austin, Texas, is in Gaithersburg, about 20 miles south.

The National Cooperative Grocers Association says most of its 106 food cooperatives now carry meat and seafood and have other modern amenities in their 133 stores. The co-ops’ combined clout enables them to buy and offer nationally branded products at competitive prices, and the association regularly publishes sale flyers and coupons that the co-ops distribute to their members.

The group says about 45 percent of its members are either expanding, remodeling or seeking new quarters to accommodate their double-digit annual sales growth in recent years, including a 13 percent increase in 2005.

Though food co-ops are open to the public, they are owned by their members, who pay a fee in exchange for voting rights and a share in the profits, either through member discounts or an annual rebate.

Not all food co-ops embrace the trend toward offering consumer-driven products. The Ocean Beach People’s Organic Foods Market in San Diego doesn’t sell meat and probably never will unless members vote to change the bylaws, said financial manager Jamie Decker.

She also said a proposal to bring in poultry and seafood a dozen years ago never got past the board of directors and that co-op members fought moving to a bigger store four years ago because they “were a little concerned it would take away our homey, co-op atmosphere.”

There was controversy at the Common Market in the mid-1990s about whether to carry meat but Mrs. O’Rear, a strict vegan, said she’s glad it was approved.

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