Back in 1971, the Food Conspiracy Co-op was formed by Tucson residents who sought to create a new approach to providing food to the community. These organizers used their collective purchasing power to obtain natural food products, which weren’t as readily available in stores back then.
The Food Conspiracy Co-op is now the city’s sole full-service food cooperative. Being member-owned holds them accountable to their customers, so the focus can remain on the quality of the products. I spoke with board president Michael DeSantis and board vice president Kevin Hendricks about this iconic place for both a healthy food and healthy community as the organization approaches its 50th anniversary next year.
Hendricks called the co-op “not only a place for food, but also a space for shared values, as food primarily brings people together.”
The co-op has been celebrating diversity and inclusivity for 50 years.
DeSantis said the co-op’s mission is “solid, the organization has never been stronger, and there is a shared vision that will prepare us for long-term success.”
DeSantis believes the organization has successfully created a healthy, transparent operation, where staff and board members can openly communicate. He now wants to explore exceeding typical practices and industry norms. One example: Their declaration of The Conspiracy Way, a community code of conduct that promotes healthy, positive behaviors and communication for a variety of scenarios. In addition to this declaration, the organization has focused on creating unity between the staff and the board, authoring a collaborative strategic plan (with their customer-owners in mind) and passing a resolution to provide ownership to all staff to share in the opportunities, resulting in high levels of staff engagement and retention.
With a strong team in place, expansion and innovation are possible. The Food Conspiracy Co-op has plans to expand their retail offerings and prepared foods, create a comfortable seating area, and provide increased parking and a new east entrance and parking area. Hendricks sees the new entrance as “the tactic for bringing it all together.” The second element of the project will include design ideas from owners, board members, and staff to integrate the gardens and existing parking lot to develop a campus/village feel from Third Avenue to Fourth Avenue, so that all holdings of the co-op are tied together by the community space of the gardens.
Both DeSantis and Hendricks are passionate about fostering communal space. DeSantis is proud of the co-op’s strong partnership with suppliers, as well as their long-term farm loan program. He also believes in supporting outside educational organizations and other community organizations. There are strong relationships with service providers that range from students and farmers to designers and architects, as well as strong connections with the larger world of co-operatives.
Hendricks said the grocery and kitchen department managers “are always looking to connect with local producers and they actively make visits to see the operations and go through the quality process to see if they can get the product on the shelves or be included in the prepared foods and highlighted in the newsletter articles and promotional avenues.”
In essence, if it is on the shelves of the co-op, then it should be considered an endorsement because of the high quality of the food and being a local product.
DeSantis found on his first visit to Tucson that the co-op was the epitome of community. After volunteering and attending the board meetings, he formally joined the board of directors to contribute ideas. He had joined the Food Conspiracy first in the early ’70s before moving to Northern Arizona and, later, California to work in project management for both renewable energy and community development. When he returned, he realized that all of the skills he learned while away would be of value to the challenges and opportunities being faced by the co-op. Today, he is proud of his fellow board members who each bring experience and perspective that contribute to the long-term viability of the organization.
After moving from Washington, D.C., to Tucson in 2008, Hendricks looked for the best place to find local organic food. His quest for organic, non-GMO foods led him to the co-op. He joined the board because he’s is always seeking ways to educate the public about co-op’s quality of locally sourced food.
DeSantis and Hendricks share a similar experience in the Food Conspiracy Co-op: It was one of the first community connections they made while first living in Tucson. This speaks to not only the well-known benefits of quality organic offerings, but also to how this Tucson institution is a magnet for inspiring collective community efforts.
Michael Peel is the Southern Arizona director of Local First Arizona. This is a regular series of columns from Local First Arizona on local sustainable economy issues. Get involved as a member or volunteer of Local First Arizona by signing up at localfirstaz.com.