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Hillsboro Food Co-op halfway there

With memberships rising, downtown cooperative seems possible

For Karen Smith, the hardest part about getting her vision for a Hillsboro Food Cooperative off the ground is convincing people it's worth the investment.

"It takes time, but we're gaining legitimacy," Smith said of her three-year effort to start a locally owned and operated co-op grocery store near the city's downtown. "Most people want a lot of information before they hand over $200."

HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: TRAVIS LOOSE - Hillsboro Food Co-ops Elisa Joy Payne (left) and Karen Smith (right) would like to bring downtown residents a grocer that offers healthy food options at an affordable price. What began as a casual conversation in Smith's living room has since grown into a movement with more than 140 members — all of whom now have an ownership stake in the prospective market.

With a traditional co-op, bought-in members annually receive surplus revenue from the store's sales in proportion to how much they use the co-op, which typically offers fresh, locally grown foods at an affordable price.

There are no outside shareholders to drive up costs and no corporate CEOs making decisions for the local community from an office thousands of miles away.

"I'm enthralled with the co-op business model," said Elisa Joy Payne, member-owner and aspiring future co-op president. "It's a way for small communities to direct what happens locally and not be forgotten."

Since the closing of Hank's Thriftway last June, both Smith and Payne felt a vacuum appear in the downtown grocery market. But with the city's several chain grocery stores, no immediate need for a Hank's replacement appeared.

However, Smith and Payne's collective vision isn't to supplant those larger grocery store options as much as it's to give back to the community through food and health education, outreach, charitable contributions and investments in local products.

"The people who are jumping in are people who value our community, value healthy eating, and value the planet's people and environment," Payne said. "But that doesn't mean we'll only offer bean loaf and tofu. We want to have food that's culturally diverse — meats, fish, dairy, grains, etc., with selective choices for processed foods."

"We're not putting Winco out of business," Smith said. "Conversations will be had with member owners about what we carry on our shelves."

But there's still some time before shelves are hung.

In the three years since Smith's living room chat, the movement has only brought in 147 members — and yet it's growing.

Last spring, for example, a lull in member signups left Smith feeling defeated. But after neighborhood informational sessions and outreach efforts through the downtown Farmers Markets, a jump in membership reinvigorated the movement.

Now she's set a 300-member benchmark for January 2017.

"A lot of people say, 'I'll join when it opens,'" Payne said.

"But it'll never open that way," said Smith. "When we start looking for locations, that's when it becomes concrete and legitimate for people."

But they can't start looking for locations until the member investments make that possible.

"Current members put in hundreds of volunteer hours to push the idea through farm tours and fundraisers," Payne said. "They do this because they care about the community … and they want food they can put on their tables for cheaper than fast food."

Look for Smith and Payne's co-op booth at the Saturday Downtown Farmers' Markets and Sunday Orenco Farmers' Markets.

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Editor's Note: This story originally stated that the co-op runs a booth at the Tuesday Downtown Farmer's Market. The booth is actually at the Saturday farmer's market.