Common Ground Food Co-op Partners Local Farmers, Residents and Neighbors in Need
When you walk into the Common Ground Food Co-Operative in Urbana, Illinois, the fragrant smells hit you first. It’s the clean, earthy smell of fresh food. The aromas of organic fruits and vegetables, fresh bread, and the café inside the co-op all mix together, welcoming you in to buy locally harvested produce and a variety of other goods.
The abundant rainbow of apples, melons, peppers, lettuces, eggplants, and carrots come from farms that are within 100 miles of Urbana-Champaign.
“We’ve always been interested in local foods,” said Sarah Buckman, Common Ground’s marketing manager. She said that many of the farms selling crops here have been family-owned for five or six generations. “We are super proud to be keeping that legacy.”
In the past nine years that Buckman has been working at Common Ground, she said that the number of nearby farms supplying food to the co-op has increased. The Urbana-Champaign area is smothered by corn and soybean fields that are used to make biofuels and feed livestock, making direct accessibility to the farm fresh produce to eat difficult. This outlet for the crops of family-owned farms is important to dietary health in the communities.
“More and more local farmers just sprouted up,” Buckman said.
Mackensie Archibald, a Common Ground staff member, has worked at the co-op for four years after switching from a job in the food service industry. She really appreciates the local farms and the effort put into them, she said.
“I wanted to do something more about helping local farmers and community-oriented assets,” Archibald said. “It’s been really lovely.” Now working in marketing for the co-op, Archibald said she especially enjoys talking with and posting about the local farmers. She said having the opportunity to “capture someone being passionate about what they do for a living is really beautiful.”
As a food co-op, Common Ground is a “consumer-owned grocery store.” When it opened in 1974, it was a small volunteer-owned “buyer’s club” with a $1 membership. At that time, there was very little access to local, healthy food in the area, so the volunteers had to drive to Wisconsin to pick up the food.
By 1984, Common Ground grew enough to have a small store in the basement of a church in Champaign, and by 2008, the co-op moved to its current location in the Lincoln Square Mall in Urbana.
“To this day, we have about 9,000 owners that have invested money with us and have equal ownership,” Buckman said.
To be an owner, one must pay a $60 equity payment. After this one-time payment, the owner has a share of the co-op and a vote in the board of directors election each year. Anyone, regardless of whether they are an owner, can shop at the co-op, but only owners get these extra benefits.
If people want to become a member yet cannot afford to pay the fee, they can apply annually for the Food for All program. Buckman said that this program is “entirely community funded,” and it covers the equity payment.
“They’ll still get all the benefits of being an owner,” Buckman said. “We want to make sure they have access to produce.” People in the Food for All program also receive a 10% discount on produce and “Co-op Basics,” such as beans and milk. Each year, the co-op provides about $12,000 in discounts.
In addition to the Food for All program, Common Ground also has a Round Up for Good program, which benefits a different Urbana-Champaign charity each month that is nominated by co-op owners.
“We really want to focus our efforts locally,” Buckman said. “There’s a lot of really cool organizations.” Past organizations include Prairie Rivers Network, a local environmental group focused on water quality, and Urbana-Champaign Books to Prisoners, a project that donates books to incarcerated people.
The Round Up for Good program raises money by encouraging customers to “round-up” their grocery bills, and 100% of the rounded funds goes to that month’s charity.
Looking ahead, Buckman said that Common Ground wants to focus on making its fresh groceries as affordable as possible. The co-op is working with other co-ops in the National Co+op Grocers association to make that happen.
Since Common Ground is currently so community-oriented, this further affordability will make an already-welcoming place even more inclusive.
“It’s a really wonderful place with wonderful people,” Archibald said.
Located in the Lincoln Square Mall in Urbana, Illinois, the Common Ground Food Co-Operative provides a place for farmers to sell their crops and residents to get fresh produce. (Grace Finnell-Gudwien/Medill)
Common Ground offers a variety of produce, including apples, watermelons, pears, zucchini, peppers, and carrots. The co-op also has dry groceries, such as beans and baked goods. (Grace Finnell-Gudwien/Medill)
Common Ground focuses on providing organic produce from family farms within 100 miles of Urbana-Champaign. (Grace Finnell-Gudwien/Medill)
Mackensie Archibald, Common Ground staff member, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sarah Buckman, Common Ground marketing manager, email@example.com