“Come and join in the formation of a county-wide cooperative food cooperative. As yet, this cooperative has no form or shape (not even a name); it only has heart.” (a hopeful flyer, 1972)
The Skagit Valley Food Co-op started in a Presbyterian church basement, across from the County Courthouse in Mount Vernon, Washington, in 1973. Like other food co-ops and buying clubs throughout the country, the Co-op was a way for people to bring good food to their hometowns in an economic manner consistent with their social values.
The early Co-op, run on volunteer labor, carried mostly bulk items—grains, beans, cheese—as well as bread that members baked during regular collaborations with the Little Bread Company in Seattle. With the help of donations and member loans, the expanding Co-op moved into a 750 square foot storefront at 610 S. Second Street, off of Pine Street Square, in late 1974. Again, volunteers did much of the work, from running the register to packaging cheese and stocking groceries. The Co-op held fundraisers to help keep the doors open and pay for improvements. An early collaboration with SCANP (Skagitonians Concerned About Nuclear Power) led to years of Magic Skagit Festivals at the County Fairgrounds, celebrating good music and good food and helping to cement the store’s involvement in the community. The first in a series of remodels came in 1983, when a wall was knocked out to provide an additional 150 square feet. Aside from volunteer labor, the staff in those days consisted of four paid part-timers.
About the same time, Co-op staff members began to actively connect with the wider cooperative food movement, whose goals dovetailed with SVFC’s: providing organic, healthful foods, building a sustainable future and providing the community with a business that was owned by many for the benefit of all. Reflecting this new energy, the Co-op expanded community outreach and education. The newsletter was first published in 1981, and the Co-op offered “How to Eat Well Cheaply” workshops at Skagit Valley College, a forerunner of the Co-op’s current extensive workshop series and community outreach program. Eventually, the Co-op would add its 4% Friday program to benefit non-profit community organizations with 4% of store proceeds from the fourth Friday per month. Still later, the Tokens for Tomorrow program would benefit both the environment and worthy organizations by allowing shoppers to designate tokens, earned by bringing in their own grocery bags, to specific non-profit groups.
The Co-op Board was established in 1985, replacing a previous decision-making process by monthly full membership meetings. Elected board members make policy decisions for the store, while the General Manager is in charge of operations. The Board, as well as a supportive, active membership, was instrumental in helping to move the Co-op in 1985 from the rickety Pine Street building to the north end of the present Co-op building (then called the Uptowne Centre, at 202 S. 1st Street) expanding the storefront to 5000 square feet.
In 1988, fueled by good overall growth and financed by a National Co-op Bank loan, the Co-op expanded again to open the Deli Next Door, serving prepared wholesome food, as well as providing the only local source for espresso. Sales increase by over 50% during the next year. In a series of remodels, the Co-op slowly took over the former Knights of Pythias/Uptowne Centre building, expanding the Deli to seat 65. Even with continuous growth and parking challenges, Co-op membership expressed a desire to remain in downtown Mount Vernon; leasing a lot from the city eased parking concerns.
In September 2005, the Co-op purchased the 1st Street building, renaming it the Co-op Building. Co-op offices were moved to the upper floors, giving the Co-op, along with tenants, full occupancy of the building. The mercantile department was moved to its spacious mezzanine location in 2007, and the produce area was expanded, reflecting a continually growing consumer interest in organic and locally produce fruits and vegetables. The Co-op produce department had previously been designated the first USDA organically certified produce department in the Skagit Valley (and the second certified in Washington state). By the summer of 2009, the Co-op had fully paid off the loan and became the outright owners of the Co-op Building. The same year, the membership voted to approve the possibility of patronage refunds to owner-members, beginning in 2010.
As a not-for-profit, full service grocery and deli employing over 100, the Co-op serves as an anchor, physically and in terms of community involvement, in both downtown Mount Vernon and the Skagit Valley. The Co-op is also an active participant in the broader Co-op movement as a member of the National Cooperative Grocers Association. Guided by its mission statement, the Co-op continues to provide its members with high quality food; to support sustainable agriculture, including the extensive local agricultural community; to provide members and the broader community with crucial education about food, health and environmental issues; and to uphold the principles of a cooperative business.