With stores on both the east and west side of Olympia, the Olympia Food Co-op has long been a must-shop store for locals looking for organic, sustainably grown food and natural products.
If you’ve never shopped at a co-op, what differences might you expect from your usual grocery store stop?
“There are a lot of ways in which we’re different from a chain or grocery store,” explains Jayne Kaszynski, staff member spokesperson for the Olympia Food Co-op. “We are not-for-profit, so we work as much as possible to keep our prices low and we don’t sell all the same things you’d see at a regular grocery stores.”
The Co-op strives to stock foods that are healthiest for people and best for the environment. “We try and find things where the companies that are making the food are doing good things in the world,” says Kaszynski.
The Co-op also does a lot of work in the community, donating to local nonprofit groups and offering inexpensive classes in nutrition and raising gardens. “We try to give back as much as possible,” says Kaszynski.
Shoppers find some of the best deals around – both for day-to-day shopping and its incredibly affordable one-time membership fee of just $29. The co-op currently has about 22,000 active members, many of whom volunteer regularly at the store, doing everything from cleaning and cashiering to stocking the shelves and trimming produce. These members receive price discounts for their time.
“It’s really easy to become a member. I think we have if not the cheapest, then one of the cheapest memberships of co-ops in the entire country,” says Kaszynski.
And people don’t have to pay that small fee all at once; they can start with a five dollar membership fee, and then pay six dollars a year for four years.
The co-op also offers free special memberships for people who are seniors, disabled, or low income.
Everyone is welcome to shop at either of the Olympia Food Co-op stores, but members pay shelf prices, while non-members pay 10 percent more. Those qualifying for the special membership receive 10 percent off shelf prices every day.
Co-op members also vote on everything from board of director elections to whether or not the stores should sell alcohol or accept credit cards.
Buying in bulk is a huge advantage the Olympia Food Co-op has over most other grocery-shopping options in Thurston County. But if a shopper has never done so, it can seem intimidating at first.
“Any staff person will be more than happy to show them around and tell them the ins and outs of how to shop with us,” says Kaszynski.
The bulk section at the east side store offers whole grains, herbs and spices, dried fruits, flours, nuts, oils, vinegars, and more. The selection is astounding. And cutting out all superfluous packaging means prices can’t be beat.
“For people who are looking to shop as healthfully as possible, for as little money as possible, go in and shop out of the bulk section and really get those whole grains at those low prices,” Kaszynski says. “They can get something that’s organic, delicious, and really low cost.”
Fresh fruits and vegetables are also a bargain at Olympia Food Co-op. “We’ve got the cheapest organic produce in town, and a lot of really delicious local stuff because we have a much lower mark-up for local farms,” says Kaszynski. “We specifically make it cheaper to support local farmers while also making the food available to local people.”
The eastside store offers an extensive salad bar. “The salad bar is fantastic. I believe it’s the cheapest salad bar in town and it’s all organic,” says Kaszynski. “When you’re doing food for people and not for profit, you can do that.”
The cozy west side Olympia Food Co-op store opened in 1980, after originally beginning in someone’s garage. By the early ’90s, the west side store was bursting at the seams, so the east side’s location opened in 1994.
The co-op grew out of several buying clubs that folks ran with friends out of their homes. “At some point, a bunch of the people got together and said, ‘Rather than having half a dozen buying clubs, why don’t we get together and do one co-op?’” Kaszynski remembers.
Next year marks the 35th anniversary of the Olympia Food Co-op.
“Now we’re actually at the point where we’re going to need to expand again,” says Kaszynski of the larger store.
The Co-op began looking at possible downtown locations for a new store a few years ago, but the process unfortunately began right as the economy took a hit.
“We’ve struggled with how to move forward and the wisest way to do so. Even though the economy has gone downhill, we’re still doing so well that we need to expand,” Kaszynski says with a laugh.
No matter what changes the future holds for expansion or relocation, the Co-op will certainly stick to its mission statement of making good food accessible to more people.
“We go back to that mission statement all the time. Everything that we’re doing is basically to try and keep serving our members and people who want to become members and to do a better job of it while still holding on to our values of doing right for the environment and for laborers and for all of these other values we hold around food.”
3111 Pacific Ave. SE
Olympia WA 98501
Westside Olympia Food Co-op
921 Rogers St. NW
Olympia WA 98502