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Go organic in Oly

Olympia Food Co-op is pure nature

The Olympia Food Co-op offers natural foods hard to find anywhere else. Photo credit: Molly Gilmore

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The Olympia Food Co-op's focus on local, organic and bulk foods sets it apart from many grocery stores. But underneath what's on the shelves and in the freezers, there's another difference:

The co-op is a community - a community of workers who make decisions collaboratively and a community of shoppers, most of whom are members and many of whom volunteer in the stores or serve on the board of directors.

It's a community where kids under 12 receive a free fruit or vegetable on each visit and where regular shoppers find themselves bumping into friends, neighbors and colleagues.

"The way the community comes together here is amazing," says Grace Cox, who's worked at the co-op since 1984. "I can be in the aisles working and a customer has a question about something that I don't know much about, and pretty soon another customer in the aisle is sharing what they know.

"The day after the election, people came here to find other people who might be having the same sense of grief or fears that that election engendered in a lot of people," she adds. "It provides this interesting community space. People come here to make friends."

The co-op, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, has amassed 30,000 members since it began with a tiny downtown store.

Anyone can shop at the two current locations - one on each side of town - but prices are marked up 10 percent for nonmembers. A lifetime membership costs $29, and free memberships are available to seniors, people with disabilities and those with low incomes.

The Eastside store's deli means that it doubles as an eatery, and the Westside has a dedicated garden center and a Free Store, where people can donate what they no longer use and browse for something new. The co-op offers classes on topics from using and sharpening garden tools to making homemade gummies and marshmallows.

Of course, groceries are the main event, and the commitment to community continues when it comes to what's on the shelves and in the freezers.

"The goal we hold most dear is providing good food to more people," Cox says. The co-op tries to keep markups low and offers a 10 percent discount for people with low incomes.

"Good food" means that as many items as possible are organic and made without genetically modified ingredients, and it goes beyond that. "We are concerned about how products are produced in terms of labor standards and how far the products have to travel," Cox says. "We try to be as ethical as possible."

It also means local food that supports the local economy. The stores carry items from more than 100 local and regional farmers and producers, with local goods that go way beyond the produce department. Think Cobb's Half Baked Cheesecake, which is vegan, gluten free and made in Olympia, or super-smooth Exquisite N Traditional hummus, made in Tumwater.

Then there's the food prepared in the store. The Eastside's deli makes it a popular lunch spot. There's a salad bar, hot soups - African chicken peanut and coconut cashew curry carrot are among the favorites - and pre-made sandwiches. (Soup and sandwich selections are listed on co-op's website,

If there's any drawback to dining in, it's that so many people are doing it. It can be a challenge to snag a table at lunchtime - though the Eastside store is being refreshed and reorganized, so there's hope of a bit more space for tables.

"We're going to give it some love," Cox says.

Eastside Olympia Food Co-op, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, 311 Pacific Ave. SE, Olympia, 360.956.3870,

Westside Olympia Food Co-op, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, 921 Rogers St. NW, Olympia, 360.754.7666,

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