After 10 years operating out of its storefront in the Burns St. Center, the Missoula Community Food Co-op is closing its store by Dec. 1. The co-op stopped paying rent to its landlord, the North Missoula Community Development Corporation, in September, and currently has about $100,000 in outstanding debts, according to a dissolution vote notice distributed by the co-op board.
“It’s an odd position to have worked at the co-op all these years and love the co-op, but at this point it’s not working,” says NMCDC community organizer Hermina Harold, who, as a UM student, did her social work practicum at the co-op.
The co-op was formed using the relatively unusual worker-owner model, which required members to work a three-hour shift at the co-op once a month in order to shop there, unlike the more common consumer-owner model, where shoppers are obligated only to buy in, not work. “I think there was a group of people that developed an initial prejudice against the model,” says NMCDC Executive Director Bob Oaks.
In July 2016, the co-op opened shopping to nonmembers in an effort to boost its bottom line, but the experiment backfired. “Our sales went down 30 percent when we opened to the public,” says board member Jessica Glebke. “People felt that was the way to go, but that actually caused disengagement in our members.” Members who usually scheduled their shifts to coincide with shopping trips stopped doing either, Harold says.
The increasingly widespread availability of organic food also cut into the co-op’s market share, says Glebke, noting the increase in Costco’s selection of organics and the entrance of Natural Grocers into the Missoula market in the years since the co-op opened.
“Missoulians love to rally around the cause of local food systems, but when they have to drive an extra mile or work three hours a month, that enthusiasm wanes a little bit,” Glebke says.
The co-op’s history is intimately intertwined with that of the NMCDC. “We ended up getting this property with the co-op in mind so we could develop this as a food and nutrition center,” Oaks says. “We’d definitely like to see that continue with whoever the next tenant is.”
Harold says NMCDC has started reaching out to grocery stores to see if there’s any interest in the location, which she thinks could continue to serve the low-income neighborhood surrounding it. “I don’t feel like we successfully started reaching out until we started getting the double SNAP program,” she says. “The food co-op was the only year-round daily place you could access double SNAP dollars, and now that’s going away.”
The co-op will be open Friday through Sunday for the rest of the month to sell its remaining stock. On Nov. 28 at 6 p.m., members will gather in the store to cast their final ballots on whether to dissolve the co-op or return to its original buyers’ club model. Regardless of what they choose, the store’s closure is a keenly felt loss.
“Everybody’s put in a lot of work for a lot of years,” Glebke says. “It’s really heartbreaking for everyone to see the store close.”