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Locavores' delight: Alaska’s First Member-owned Food Co-op Opens

Fairbanks Community Cooperative Market

Alaska’s first member-owned food co-op opened its doors over the weekend in downtown Fairbanks, providing local consumers with an alternative to the big-box stores. The Fairbanks Community Cooperative Market offers fresh, local- and Alaskan-grown foods in season and year-round.

For a project that took seven years of planning, fund-raising and, finally, remodeling, Saturday’s opening of the Fairbanks Community Cooperative Market was pretty much a low-key affair. General Manager Mary Christensen calls it an unveiling of sorts.

“We had a little ceremony – we took all the sheets off the windows,” she said.

Christensen says the co-op board and staff will celebrate with more hoopla during a grand opening to be held within the next month or two. But after a flurry of work over the past few weeks to get the old Foodland building on Gaffney Street ready for business,  the co-op folks pretty much just wanted to fling the doors open and invite the public in to check out the wares – which will focus on locally grown food.

“The thing’s that’s most important to us – local products, whenever possible,” she said.

Christensen says the co-op won’t be able to keep the produce section all local, especially this time of year -- although there are a few local growers, such as the Johnson's Family Farm’s hydroponic operation, that provide greens year-round. The co-op’s produce section is well-stocked, but most of the local vegetables are the kind that have long been available to Alaskans this time of year – from their root cellars.

“We started out in the produce department with local onions, and local potatoes and a couple of other local items,” Christensen said. “This summer, we’ll expand that quite a lot.”

There won’t be such a seasonal challenge in keeping the dry and bulk foods sections stocked with locally grown foods, such as barley flour and meal from Delta-based Alaska Flour Company. There’s meat from the Huffman Ranch, near Fairbanks, and fresh Alaskan seafood brought in at least once-a-week.

“Halibut’s in season now, so we’re starting out with halibut,” Christensen said. “And the wild-caught Alaska Pacific cod. And then we have rockfish, which also is Alaska. And, see the sockeye salmon? That’s from Valdez. And over here, there’s another special – Kodiak tanner crab legs.”

Christensen says shoppers will definitely not find frankenfish or any other genetically-modified products at the co-op.

“Oh, no. Never,” she said. “Wild-caught fish.”

Brad St. Pierre is the food co-op’s assistant produce manager, and he’s a strong believer in the locavore concept that locally grown food is better for people and the planet. St. Pierre brought that enthusiasm with him from Washington state, where he was a co-op member and producer.

“In Olympia, Washington, I was a  member of their co-op,” he said. “It was a really vibrant co-op. I actually farmed down there and sold vegetables to the co-op. And it was just an integral part of their community. And I can see it being that, in ours.”

Time will tell whether there are enough others around Fairbanks who’ll be attracted to the co-op, and whether enough will invest in the $200-per-household memberships to sustain the organization. It’s not necessary to buy a membership, but it comes with benefits, like discounts and annual dividends.

One Fairbanksan who was wandering the aisles Saturday afternoon, Jeff Rothman, says he’s likes what he sees so far on the shelves – and, he’s impressed with what the believers in the co-op have accomplished so far.

“It’s nice to see people in the community band together and do something that’s important to them,” Rothman said. “I like what they done. They’ve come together, they’ve spent a lot of time doing it, it’s important to them, and they’ve done a beautiful job here.”

St. Pierre says the fact that Alaska’s first food co-op was established in Fairbanks suggests people here are thinking a lot about things like self-sufficiency, and sustainability.

We’re the first co-op in Alaska. There’s not even one in Anchorage,” he said. “So, there are some radical things going on here in the Interior.”

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Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.