As general manager of the Viroqua Food Co-op in Viroqua, Wisconsin, Jan Rasikas has worked tirelessly to empower her community members with access to healthy food and her local farms with economic viability. You can hear her enthusiasm for cooperatives as she talks with Rootstock Radio host Anne O’Connor about the history of cooperatives.
The Viroqua Food Co-op is an exemplary example of the power of cooperatives. VFC was founded in 1995 and has since grown to more than 3,000 members and more than 50 employees, and they source fresh foods from within 100 miles of Viroqua whenever possible. The co-op is active both locally in its small-town community and nationally as a member of the Principle 6 (P6) Cooperative Trade Movement.
This episode with Jan Rasikas is part 1 of a 2-part series on cooperatives. Please click here for a continuation of our discussion about cooperatives with Adam Schwartz, founder of The Cooperative Way.
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now here’s host Anne O’Connor.
ANNE O’CONNOR: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Jan Rasikas. Jan is the general manager of the Viroqua Food Co-op in Viroqua, Wisconsin. Thanks for joining us today, Jan.
JAN RASIKAS: Thanks for having me. This is going to be great.
AO: Yeah, I’m very excited to have you here. Jan, you’ve been with the Viroqua Food Co-op for fifteen years. And in that time, you’ve worked to empower the community with access to healthy food and by encouraging economic viability. You’re also serving on the National Cooperative Grocers Board of Directors as the secretary treasurer. You’re an advisor for Fifth Season Co-Op, and for Center Point Co-Op. And you’re a founding member of the National Principle Six Co-Op Trade Movement Cooperative. So you’re kind of “all co-ops, all the time.”
JR: Well, one of the things that comes along with my job is to participate in supporting co-ops everywhere. That’s Principle Six: cooperation among co-ops. So I get to spend time serving on other co-ops. It broadens our own spectrum of what we’re doing at our co-op, and it’s really important to participate.
AO: So the Viroqua Food Co-Op is a co-op.
AO: And, tell us about… What’s a co-op?
JR: Well, co-op is a legal structure, if you will, for a business, recognized in every state of our country, although state statutes are a little bit different from one state to the next. But, essentially, all co-ops operate on seven cooperative principles that are international. The International Cooperative Alliance sets seven principles. And, like any other business, we have to follow certain rules and regulations, but co-ops get special treatment: sharing patronage, being a democratic organization, owning something collectively.
AO: So I am a member, for example, of a co-op, and that means that I actually own the cooperative and I get to vote on what happens in the future of that cooperative?
JR: Yup. That’s exactly right. There is another principle about participating equitably in the co-op, so we each put the same amount of money into the co-op in order to get our vote in the co-op to participate on a higher level.
AO: So you get a little skin in the game, and then you get to have a little voice in the game as well.
JR: That’s right. And there’s many different kinds of co-ops. And we’re familiar about so many in this community that we live in. Most people are familiar, in an agricultural community like ours, about the farmer co-ops that are here, producer co-ops. Our co-op is a consumer co-op, so the people who shop in the store and have joined are the owners of the business.
AO: So, Jan, can you talk about… You know, you’ve got this store in Viroqua, Wisconsin, a town of about 4,300 people, and people come in and they shop there and they go grocery shopping. Now, not everybody understands that it’s a cooperative, because it’s not like you walk through the door and it says, “This is a co-op; we’re different!” What’s different about your store versus a regular grocery store?
JR: Well, like many co-ops, we came together as a group because we wanted something that we otherwise couldn’t get. I think the best way to think about that is to remember rural electrification, decades ago, when electricity went everywhere, but the farmers couldn’t convince the electric companies to draw a line all the way out to their farm just for one farm. So they had to come together in order to get electricity. So we still have those utility co-ops in our community today.
For natural and organic foods, we needed to come together and say, “This is what we want.” We pooled our money together, started this cooperative, and then we watch it grow. And when, as you say, there’s a little skin in the game, then people are really supportive and want their co-op to thrive.
AO: Can you talk about how co-ops foster community? Is that an intentional thing? Did it just happen? Is it a small-town thing? What’s it about?
JR: It’s very intentional. Again, I’m going to go back to the seven cooperative principles, and the last one is concern for community. And there’s also an educational principle in there as well. So we tend to focus on the needs of our members, just as running the business would need to do. We’ve come together as a group, we’ve set a mission about what our focus is, and so that concern for community spills out, even just from doing that kind of action in a business.
We’re really careful to make space in the store where people can gather. Our board of directors has been studying over the years an article about “third spaces,” so we’re very conscious of the fact that our third spaces in our communities everywhere are disappearing. So the first space is home, the second space is work, and the third space is where people can gather and just talk. And we’ve pretty much zoned those out of our communities, right? There’s no more neighborhood grocery stores, there’s very few green spaces in our communities anymore… If you want to get together, people go to the mall now, which is just absurd.
AO: Or the coffee shop, maybe, that—
JR: Right, but those things are coming back, right? The coffee shop or the Coffee Corner in our really great bike shop. Those are third spaces. And we have to really cultivate them, and make sure that we’re creating spaces for people to gather where they can just stay for a while. And I think the co-op fulfills that.
AO: So is this something you see across the country? You know, you’re on the National Board of Co-Ops, and people all across the country are looking at their co-ops and trying to figure out how do we get more people in here, and how do we make this an inviting space? Is this a conversation that you hear across the country when you talk to your colleagues in co-ops across the country?
JR: Oh, yeah. When we talk about planning the floor space for a cooperative, there’s often a community room or a pretty large seating area—things that are difficult to accomplish in a business, you know, when you’re balancing it in your business. They’re important, they draw people to the store, but they really don’t earn any money per square foot, so it’s something that we really have to dig deep to make sure that we’re fulfilling.
In our store right now, that’s one of the things that we’re missing. We’re missing that community space where we can have a class ourselves. We partner a lot with the Driftless Folk School, and we accomplish our educational pieces in a different way in our community, which I think is a good partnership. But it would be really important at some point for us to be able to have a class and bring people to the Co-op, or have a community room that’s used in many different ways. So those are the things that we’re hoping to accomplish in the future.
AO: So one of the things that I have seen as I have been in the Viroqua Food Co-Op over the years is I’ve seen people from other parts of the country, from larger cities, coming and looking at what you’re doing here in southwest Wisconsin in a tiny little town of 4,300. And I always kind of marvel at that, like, “Oh, what are they doing here?” So what are they doing here? Why are they coming to your store?
JR: It’s an interesting question. Sometimes I’m surprised myself, you know, because we’re pretty focused on what we’re doing, and trying to do a good job every day here in responding to our community. But I think… We talk about this a lot. The Co-op feels…you feel something when you come into the Co-op, and I don’t get that feeling in every store I walk into, or every co-op, even, that I walk into. And there’s many great co-ops out there. There’s so many. But there is a real tangible feeling walking into the VFC.
And inside the Co-op, the staff—when we talk about keeping this great energy going in the Co-op, what is it, and what do we do, we can’t quite put our finger on any one particular thing, of course. But we have identified some of the really important things that we’re doing that we think add to that feeling. Mostly it’s about the people. Mostly it’s about service, which is a rare thing in any grocery store, or any retail store out there now. It’s hard to do. We really focus on that a lot. But keeping the store clean, having it shoppable over time, not being too fancy, but really pulled together and focusing on the food… It’s one of the reasons we choose some of the programs that we’re running. P6 is one of them I’m hoping to talk a little bit about as well. But it’s mostly the people. It’s the happy place to be, and that is rare.
AO: Yeah, it really is fascinating sometimes that you go into the store and you see the staff helping someone decide on, “What kind of oil should I use for this?” Or, in the wellness section, trying to find the right remedy or whatever it is they’re looking for, the right vitamin. And, you know, some of those conversations go on and on, and the staff has just been great. I’ve seen it over and over again there. So that is the kind of thing that I think keeps bringing people back.
So you’re talking about this sort of not-so-tangible feeling that people get when they come into the Viroqua Food Co-op, something that you’re trying to foster. But there’s also the more tangible result that you can see in your financial growth, right? Can you talk about that?
JR: Well, that has to come along with it, right? We can’t do the really great things in our community that we’re doing that most co-ops do for their communities unless we’re running a really great store. And financially, it has to be sound. So our co-op operates on a 1 percent net profitability budget, very typically. So we’re not running the business to have a lot of money at the bottom line. And even then, we’re passing it out as a patronage, which is a really great way to show folks that we are focusing on keeping everything tight, running the store really tight. And a patronage is a special way for cooperative business structure to share equitably back with their members, but it also is a really great tax break for the co-op. So when people get their patronage check and it’s $5, and they say, “Why do they bother?” they’ve got to remember that the thousands of dollars that we didn’t pay taxes on—that the co-op saved. So stuff like that is the more structural cooperative business background that makes a community store work.
But when we participate every day, shopping, and patronize our co-op, then that whole system can work really well. And it gives us a chance to give money back to the nonprofits in our community, to really share, be a good business citizen and share some of our wealth that we collectively own—the common wealth that the co-op shoppers have together in this community business.
AO: So what you’re saying is, as a consumer, I have a choice about where I spend my money and what kind of system I’m going to support. And if I have a choice for a co-op, then you know that it’s a different structure. And we don’t necessarily know what kinds of structures corporations have, but we know that the bottom line is very often accountable to stakeholders that are not owners.
JR: Yeah. We’re the stakeholders of the co-op. It makes our dollars that we spend spin around in our community many more times than it would shopping at a different store or a different structure. And that’s the power of being community-owned, if you will.
AO: So all across the country, we’re seeing people flock to co-ops to buy their food. The co-op structure in food, in natural organic food, is thriving. Why is that?
JR: Well, that’s a focus that co-ops have had for forty-plus years. When you think about the national local-food movement that we have, that’s all co-ops. It really is. When you go to a Whole Foods, it’s not that co-ops are trying to be like a Whole Foods. It’s the other way around. Whole Foods, they formulated… The look and the feel and the words on the wall at a Whole Foods is right after co-ops, only they bypassed the whole difficult part of being a community-owned store. And they’ve been very successful.
But when I think about co-ops that have had missions to support organic and local foods for decades, the idea is to bring real change to our food systems—to bring organic food to every grocery store, to make it not a niche market but a real choice for people. That, we’ve accomplished as a group. Now we have a little bit of a different problem. Now everybody wants to get into the game of organic food, a seriously growing food sector in our country where other food sectors are flat. That’s okay. They want a piece of the pie. For whatever reason, it’s bringing organic food to every grocery store, and that is the point.
Now we have to run co-ops… We’re not a niche market anymore. We have to run co-ops pretty smart now. We have competition. We have to remind people of the community that we support that other grocery stores are not going to do—that that profit’s going to go to the stakeholders. Our profit goes back to everyone. And it’s an educational game now. We really have to tell our story and tell and remind people why it’s important to have a food cooperative in your community, and what it’s giving back to the community.
AO: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Jan Rasikas, who is the general manager of the Viroqua Food Co-op in Viroqua, Wisconsin. And we’ve just been talking about the food co-op movement across the country and how it’s playing out in the Good Food movement.
So I hear you saying, you know, it is true: everyone from Target to Safeway to Kroger, every national chain across the country is jumping into the game. They all want organic and local foods. And they’re looking at you and all the national co-ops across the country and saying, “How is this happening?” Right? Because as you say, it’s the fastest-growing segment of the food industry right now. And so it makes sense. And there’s something very gratifying about that, right?
JR: Well, that’s what’s going to change the world. And that’s the point. The point is we want healthier communities, healthier people. We want great groundwater and less pesticides, and all the things that supporting organic agriculture come along with is really important. We know it’s important, but it’s difficult to make it happen when we are a culture of expecting cheap food.
What’s the real cost of food? What does the farmer deserve? What’s fair for everybody is a real balance. It’s a real balancing act, and it’s not an easy way to go. So I’m not surprised that big-box natural food stores have cherry-picked the look and the feel of being a community store without the accountability of what they’re doing in their communities and what they’re really paying—
AO: Their farmers.
JR: Yeah. It’s really an important point.
AO: So you talked about how, you know, it’s great that that’s happening, but now, in order to distinguish yourself, it’s a real education piece. So talk about that a little bit.
JR: Well, it’s more important than ever to not only talk about how important organic food is and what it does in our communities, but the structure of a cooperative business. Because when people understand where the one vote comes from and running a democratic organization—which, by the way, still has a hierarchy. We still have a board of directors that represents the membership in order to guide and vision for our particular cooperative. But it’s really important to let people know why it’s special and how we can utilize what’s special about that business structure, kind of buck against the typical food economics that’s going on in this country.
AO: Right. So if you think it about it as people on sort of a food journey, right, maybe you started at a typical grocery store, not thinking very much about where your food comes from. Maybe something happens in your family—somebody gets sick, or a doctor says, “Hey, you might want to try organic food because you’re going to help resolve this problem.” And you go down this path, and you start to understand that that food is better. And as you go down that path you learn more and more, and that the “where the food comes from” question becomes as important as how it’s grown, right?
JR: Absolutely. We understand, in the store, that the USDA Organic seal tells us how food is grown. That’s really important. Our job to complement that while we’re in our co-op is to show people the benefit when you buy that food. Who benefits from that food? So we’re linking people to their farmer and showing them a picture and a profile. And right now I’m talking about our Principle Six program that really focuses our marketing efforts on telling this great story of where our food comes from—something a small farmer has very little chance to do, whether it’s that they can’t afford to tell that kind of story, but even the time for a small farmer to put together their promotional materials is intense.
So that’s our job. That’s our job, to educate our consumers, our owners especially, and to make sure that they understand who’s growing their food and who benefits from their food, and that the chain of fairness throughout the whole system ends with our retail shelf and the availability to get that food to market.
So, you know, a small farmer, we’ve come to learn that small farmers, especially the 183 producers that are in our 100-mile radius that we’re purchasing from—
JR: Yeah, it’s big! And you know, that takes a lot of resources. There’s a reason why other grocery stores don’t bring small farmers in all the time. It takes a lot of time and energy and resources, and, you know, money to take that small drop from a hundred and some farmers during the season every week, instead of getting one truck with food on it. That’s a commitment, to get that food to our shelf. It takes time and energy, and it’s part of the fair price that we’re talking about, bringing that—
AO: The real cost of food.
JR: The real cost of food, bringing that. But what I was going to say is a farmer, to stay as a small family farm, you need several opportunities to make it—to, you know, put a kid or two through college, to be able to enjoy your life, to stay small instead of joining the huge food economy that we’ve created here: “Go big or go home” kind of thing. You need several opportunities. And I think the co-op is one piece of that. They need a strong farmers’ market; they need support in their community for a CSA program, or a couple of other things. Like farms do really great stuff, and then they’ve got community meals onsite, or they have a wedding on the farm, or whatever else they’re doing.
AO: Supply restaurants in nearby cities, right?
JR: Sure. Yeah, absolutely. But they also need that retail shelf. They need a place where people can go almost every day and get, when their food is available, to get their hands on that food. It’s a piece of supporting a local food economy.
You know, part of the price point image that we have as being an expensive store is we have a lot of organic food in the store, because that’s what our members want. That’s what our owners want. Forty-three percent of what we sell is certified organic. And that’s not the certified 70 or 90 percent, or even any of the things that are “made with organic ingredients.” We’re just talking about the USDA seal, 100 percent. Forty-three percent. So, you know, that’s a trade-off. Like we want it, we’re doing it, we’re buying it, and that gives us an image, but we’re pressing ahead because this is what our owners want us to do.
If you balance that number with our local designation is 100 miles, which is pretty close in, so if we balance that organic statistic with our local sales, which is almost 33 percent of the store—33 percent of our total sales comes from 100 miles or less.
AO: Wow, that is really an incredible number. Thirty-three percent of the entire sales of the store come from a 100-mile area. So the impact on the region here, for the farmers—
JR: It’s big. So that’s, the numbers are what speak to us, that we keep pressing ahead, knowing that this is what our consumers want us to do. That’s how we’re led in the store. We react to what the owners are purchasing.
AO: Jan, let’s do the numbers. Tell us about your cooperative in Viroqua, Wisconsin, a very popular food co-op. How many members do you have? You know, you said you started in 1995. What else can you tell us about the—
JR: Well, we are currently doing about a $7 million year in sales. Viroqua is 4,300, maybe 4,400 people. We currently have 3,300-plus members. We just did a market study not too long ago to check ourselves against growth and see what’s possible, and we learned that 80 percent of our sales come from about a 30-mile radius. So we are drawing, not really to the north because of course La Crosse is 30 miles north of us, with a sizable co-op up there, so we don’t draw too far to the north. But 30 miles is quite a range to draw from. And that’s a lot of members in a small town.
AO: Thirty-three hundred plus members in a town of 4,300. That’s pretty interesting! So yeah, you’re definitely… And I know, too, that there are some people who come here on weekends from Chicago or the Twin Cities or Milwaukee, and they love the Co-op.
JR: We actually have quite a few members. You know, we can track by zip code. And we do, we look at that data all the time, just to see, just to check against who are we serving and what are people asking for. But we do live in an area where we draw a lot of fishermen, and we draw a lot of bike sport, and other things as well—we have the beautiful Kickapoo River that people love to paddle down. But, you know, we get a chance to talk with them when they come in. Of course, the fishermen come in in their waders, so they’re easy to spot. But they always have a ready comment for us, that they wish their much larger community could have something like us, which is flattering and really great. But mostly they’re so excited to come to the area and be able to get special foods and bring it back to their cabin and really have a great time while they’re here.
So in a town our size, we want to serve our community. But like any business in our community, we have to depend on drawing from the outside as well, in order to round out our year. And that’s been great for the Co-op.
AO: Jan, is there anything else that our listeners should know about cooperatives, and food co-ops in particular?
JR: Well, I think I would impress upon everyone that the social responsibility that co-ops bring to their communities is something that we would definitely miss if we weren’t here. And you know, when you have a group or a way to focus your community on big social issues, like health and wellness and organic farming practices, things that will change our world, this is huge.
You know, we have a lot of barriers in our food system right now. Our food economics are pretty screwed up. And they’re barriers we can overcome. We may not have it totally figured out, but by focusing on what works for a local food economy, we can really change for the better our health and our food system. I think that’s what co-ops are all about.
AO: Jan, thank you so much for the work you’re doing with Viroqua Food Co-op and the national food co-op movement.
JR: Thank you so much for having me.
AO: We’ve enjoyed speaking with Jan Rasikas of the Viroqua Food Co-op today. Thank you to our listeners for joining in as well. We’ll see you next week.