The Isla Vista Food Cooperative is a beautiful place. Not only is shopping at the Co-op a food positive experience, with a wonderful and healthy vibe that we love, the mission and the vision of the store makes it something even more special. As a food store, the Co-op exists to make healthy, organic, and locally grown food more accessible and affordable to the public. Most uniquely, however, the Co-op serves as a community hub that provides education and outreach programs promoting physical health, natural food affordability, food justice, and environmental sustainability. Cooperatively owned and collaboratively run by the community, this is not your average food store.
LoaTree recently had the opportunity to sit down with Melissa Cohen, the General Manager of the Isla Vista Co-op. For the past 41 years, the Co-op has been effectively working to build a better community and encourage residents to live for a better world. Melissa has been working at the Co-op for over 10 years and has seen the store make an amazing transformation.
“Everything that we do is done in the vane of education and community outreach,” said Melissa. “What we’re really trying to do is let people know that food like this, purchased from a business such as this, is accessible.”
Unique projects targeting people of different ages, incomes and demographics make the Co-op’s efforts one of a kind.
“We’ve just launched, and are extremely excited about, the FLOWER Program,” said Melissa. “FLOWER is an acronym that stands for Fresh, Local, Organic Within Everyone’s Reach.” The program serves as the umbrella for all of the education, outreach, and resource programs the Co-op provides. FLOWER includes efforts targeting low budget shoppers through programs like CalFresh and SNAP, UCSB student outreach, a kid’s club, internships, volunteer opportunities and more.
“Essentially, we use the grocery store as a revenue generator for all of the programs and projects that we run,” said Melissa.
The Co-op gives back everything it can, and through the FLOWER Program, is facilitating community-based change. This mission-driven business model results in benefits for the entire Santa Barbara community and economy. By supporting the Co-op, you effectively support your own community!
One of the main things that the Co-op tries to address on a daily basis is the food insecurity of low-income shoppers, meaning those residents that lack consistent access to healthy, nutritious foods and meals. The Co-op, according to Melissa, is “trying to be at the forefront of businesses that prioritize access.”
Not only does the Co-op welcome and accept Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP) and CalFresh (California’s food assistance program) customers, it emphasizes education and information at every step. The Co-op sets up community information tables at the store, on the UCSB campus, and at several locations in Santa Barbara to educate students and low-income families about eating healthfully while on a tight budget. While shopping at the Co-op, anyone can ask for assistance to help stretch limited dollars.
“It is possible to have a small food budget and make it work, said Melissa. “You just have to pay attention to how you’re shopping and how you’re eating.” She and a small team put themselves to the test by recently participating in the AS Food Bank SNAP Challenge which required them to live off a food budget of $31.50 a week. Melissa spent the entirety of this small sum at the Co-op, chronicling her experience in “$31.50 Worth of Food for Thought” on her blog.
“It is expensive if you’re not planning ahead – if you’re not really intentionalizing,” she said. “The Co-op is here to serve as a grocery ally.” Among the resources it provides, one can find a meal plan and shopping list on the FLOWER site demonstrating how to create a week’s food budget for under $31.50.
UCSB and the Co-op
Melissa discussed how the Isla Vista Food Co-op “is always going to be different because it’s about 85% college students that shop here.” Because of this, the Co-op has taken advantage of the very dynamic relationships between FLOWER and UCSB programs such as the AS Food Bank and fighting hunger and promoting health and wellness. These relationships lead to Melissa often lecturing on campus about nutrition and holistic eating habits.
“I take very seriously what it means to start engaging with people and their consumption habits, and showing college students how to grocery shop and how to eat healthfully on a budget,” said Melissa. Through this work at the Co-op, Melissa has inspired countless students to pursue a nutrition, farming, or herbalist career.
Sunflower Kid’s Club
Another project under the FLOWER umbrella is the Sunflower Kid’s Club, a new program that was launched just under two months ago and already includes about 40 kids! There are free monthly events for children on the Co-op patio that includes environmental education provided by Co-op collaboration with Sprout Up, a student-run volunteer education group.
Kids have a hands-on snack-making experience, arts and crafts, a highlighted free local produce item with recipes and fun facts, and healthy food scavenger hunts. Melissa emphasized how beautiful this Kid’s Club experience is because “it’s really important for generations to interface together.” It serves as an example in Isla Vista of some of the demographic differences that exist, and that I.V. is not just a college town!
Internships and Volunteering Opportunities
Other programs that the Co-op has founded are the Community Food Impact Internship Program and the Spiral Volunteer Program. One of the main purposes of the Community Food Impact Internship Program is to “let people understand that the Co-op is a hub for food justice and accessibility.” Among many responsibilities, an intern’s role at the Co-op includes educating people about food assistance and CalFresh and SNAP benefits
“The volunteering program, coordinated by Annie Arcuri, is also a huge component of our outreach because it gives people that shop here the opportunity to be more involved with how the Co-Op functions,” said Melissa.
We Love the Co-op
And it’s very hard not to. Melissa shared a quote that inspires her day-by-day: “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
“This Co-op is known around the world for planting a lot of seeds,” said Melissa. “We create Co-op shoppers, we create better awareness around food.”
In the next couple months, keep a look out for upcoming programs, including Cal-Good, a shelf tag program that lets the shopper see how items in the store measure up from environmental and social responsibility standpoints.
Besides the numerous and meaningful programs, the Co-op is just an amazing place to be and to shop. It’s the perfect place to receive help for those going through transitional diets, committing to better health, learning more about mindful eating, deciding to shop to support local farmers, or just building a high quality and cost-effective pantry. At the Co-op, there is a wealth of information about how to shop in a way that, as Melissa says, “brings the cost of food down and the quality up.”
Next time you shop for groceries, make a stop at the Co-op!
By Bethany Stevens, LoaTree Writing Intern. All photos by Lea Anna Drown/Observant Images, except photo of Melissa Cohen, taken by Bethany Stevens.