Students plan to create grocery co-op on campus

Dinkytown hasn’t had a full-service grocery store in more than 15 years.
March 07, 2013

In an effort to fill the lack of affordable produce around the University of Minnesota, students want to open a campus grocery cooperative.

Last week, a group of about 20 students began planning to approach the University about funding a full-service grocery store in the next few years.

The store could be built in the University’s Donhowe Building on 15th Avenue Southeast or elsewhere in Dinkytown, where there hasn’t been a full-scale grocer in more than 15 years. To keep costs down for student shoppers, it would most likely follow a nonprofit cooperative business model, in which students who use the co-op’s services could own and democratically control it.

The group of students, who call themselves the Food Coalition, cited a lack of quality produce on campus and the hassle of getting to other grocery stores as its major reasons for the project.

“I can’t even think of where I would go to get fruit other than the cafeteria at Coffman,” senior Lauren Penkalski said.

When she lived on campus, Penkalski said she had to drive to the Quarry to get groceries, which took a lot of time.

“It would be nice if you could just walk there,” she said.

The Food Coalition discussed how not having a full-service grocery store on campus makes way for eco-unfriendly practices, like driving to buy groceries. A large grocery store on campus would save students time and alleviate the need to keep a car on campus, the group said.

Food Coalition organizer Laura Dorle said with House of Hanson planning to leave Dinkytown, now is an especially good time for a food co-op.

“I think there’s even more of a void to be filled in terms of grocery stores,” she said.

Students at the coalition meeting last week agreed the grocery store would have a combination of organic and conventionally grown produce to give shoppers a variety of prices and to allow students to learn about where food comes from.

“This is a neat opportunity for community-building and awareness around environmental concerns as it relates to food,” said Nora Mahto Knutson, who attended the meeting.

She said she thinks students will be responsive to the grocery store because it would bring a different food standard to campus.

“If we can bring higher-quality, affordable food to the neighborhood and to Dinkytown, there’s no reason why you would choose the crappy apples at CVS over some nice, affordable local apples,” Knutson said. “I think the demand is definitely there.”

Sean Doyle, general manager of the Seward Co-op, said though he appreciates the students’ efforts, starting a cooperative business takes a lot of work.

“It’s not something that typically comes quickly,” he said.

Doyle cited startup costs like equipment and building space as potential hurdles for the students.

Selling produce is particularly costly because highly perishable products need to be “turned,” or rotated off the shelf, every three to four days, Doyle said. He said Seward produce is turned every other day or so.

Other stores on campus probably don’t sell high volumes of produce just for this reason, he said.

“Purchasing [enough produce] to have it on the shelf without going bad is a really legitimate challenge that they face.”

What’s in store

The Food Coalition is creating a pitch for University groups like the Office for Student Affairs and the Student Services Fees Committee to cover co-op membership and equipment costs.

Under their proposal, students’ membership in the co-op would be covered by student services fees, said Phillip Kelly, head of the Food Coalition.

The group has also approached Boynton Health Service for support on the project.

Though the plan is in its preliminary stages, Boynton Chief Operating Officer Carl Anderson said he could see the health service helping with the store in the future, either on a financial or educational level.

Anderson said Boynton could potentially give cooking classes and nutrition counseling in conjunction with the co-op.

He said he looks forward to the project’s development because it may alleviate the campus’s deficiency in healthy food options.

“I think the resources are pretty limited in terms of access to organic produce,” Anderson said. “If you can create more options for students to have a healthier variety of food choices, I think it’s a great idea.”

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