October 17, 2011
By Mike Killeen
About a year ago, Jared Smith sought out a group of people who were interested in starting a food cooperative (or co-op) in St. Joseph.
The group might not have known it at the time, but it had unexpectedly found an energetic supporter and leader of their plan.
Smith, a senior majoring in environmental studies at Saint John's University, is vice president of the nine-person board that runs the Minnesota Street Market, a food and art co-op which opened for business July 1 and had its grand opening Sept. 17. He's also doing an internship for credit at the market this semester.
"He (Smith) is one of the developers of the co-op," said Katie Foley, general manager of the co-op, which is located at 27 W. Minnesota St., St. Joseph.
What is a co-op? According to the Minnesota Street Market's website, a cooperative is "a member-owned, member governed business that operates for the benefit of its members/owners. The goal is to provide ethically sound and environmentally conscious goods and services that the community needs at a rate they can afford." People can become owners/members of the co-op for a one-time investment of $100, although you don't need to be a member to buy goods there.
Smith is no stranger to a co-op. Throughout his life, he has shopped at cooperatives in his hometown of Stillwater, Minn., and in nearby St. Cloud.
"There are a lot of things I like about the idea of a co-op," Smith said. "Specifically, a food co-op has the unique opportunity to be a funnel for local and natural goods. If they want produce from a farm, they'll need to go to a farmer's market or go to the farm directly. This creates a one-stop shop out of that.
"Because the co-op is owned and run by the community, the decisions we make are based around the best interests of our members in trying to bring them the lowest prices and the best things that we can find on the market," Smith said.
There's also an educational component as well. For example, Smith said the co-op will strive to find different kinds of grains that consumers may not know about.
A number of students are serving as volunteers at the co-op. Smith said he's also seeing students from both CSB and SJU wander into the store.
"A lot of them, at this point, don't necessarily care a whole lot about the co-operatively owned piece of it," Smith said. "They might think it's kind of cool, but they're looking for a place to get what they need. Even if we are just that to them, without knowing it, they're supporting a really great cause and they're supporting a lot of farmers."
"Besides the fact he's charming as all get out, he's very good at customer service," Foley said. "He also serves as a bridge to the colleges, because he knows a lot of students. He spreads the word about the co-op."
Foley said Smith did a great job creating relationships with area farmers and producers, most of whom were happy to supply produce, meats, dairy, maple syrup, honey, sunflower oil or soaps to the co-op. Foley thinks that will continue to be a "big focus for (Smith)."
"It was lucky we were able to open in July and that we could capitalize on (their crops coming in)," Smith said. "Hopefully, that will grow in the future, because they didn't plant with us in mind this spring. Most of them have said, 'Next year we'll have more for you, because we're going to plant with you in mind.' So it will continue to grow and flourish."
Kind of like attending that meeting a year ago.
"As they were giving the presentation and talking about what they were doing, I noticed that there were really no students involved with it," Smith said. "So I pulled one of them aside afterwards and asked if I could help at all, rallying up support or getting some hands for anything they needed.
"And they said, 'Start coming to our meetings.' "