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Member-owned grocer expands access to quality, local food with fresh produce boxes

The 'Crop Box' helps feed Riverside with fresh, seasonal produce while sustaining local farms and economies.

A photo of a delivery van for the Riverside Food Co-op.
Riverside Food co-op delivered food boxes to community members during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Riverside Food Co-op, a not-for-profit grocery store, is using fresh produce boxes to help feed the community and support local farms.

The program, a members-only subscription, includes a box of locally-sourced, fresh produce, dubbed “Crop Box,” for $30 per month. Depending on the season, customers receive an array of fruits and vegetables, ranging between potatoes, leafy greens, oranges and berries. Boxes can be picked up on location or delivered with an added fee of $7.

The member-owned grocer, which currently operates at a temporary location, is fully funded through its members who must be California residents and make a one-time payment of $100 (ensuring lifetime status). Together, these are people fully dedicated to the movement to promote healthy eating.

“[Th​e customers] care about the food they eat, and they care about their local economy,” said Sue Struthers, treasurer at the cooperative.

Established by a group of demonstrators in 2012 during The Occupy movement — a series of populist protests that expressed dissent to social and economic disparities following the Great Recession —, Riverside Food Co-op began with a vision that saw the need for access to equitable food. The grocer later became an incorporated business in 2013. (Similar cooperatives can be found throughout California in Sacramento, Davis, Santa Barbara, and across the U.S.)

Today, the co-op has a total  483 active members, including its volunteers who help pack the “Crop Box” packages Sunday mornings ahead of distribution days. Any unused and left-over food from the week goes directly to serve local food pantries.

Struthers, who spent 18 years as a children’s librarian in Riverside, first got involved at the co-op just six months after it opened. Now retired and serving as a board member at the Riverside Food Systems Alliance, she said the co-op has become a huge part of her life. Struthers also strongly supports its business model.

“I believe in eating healthy, natural food,” she said, “and by having local produce, we reduce the amount of miles that our food travels.”

According to its website, 98% of the co-op’s food comes from within a 235-mile radius of Downtown Riverside unlike supermarket chains whose “local” produce may travel more than 500 miles, coming from Arizona, Mexico and sometimes as far north as Oregon.

Scott Berndt, the co-op’s produce buyer and a devoted farmer himself, sources the food from local partners like Blessed Farm in Riverside, Gaytan Family Farms in Mira Loma, California and Sage Mountain Farm in Anza, California, among others. Approximately $2,500 to $3,000 is spent a month at these farms to purchase the produce Riverside Food Co-op uses for the “Crop Box” and its other programs, Stuthers said.

However, what makes the co-op uniquely different from local farmers’ markets is its ability to be fully accessible whenever a customer needs produce, and contrary to corporations like Walmart and Target, where customer money flows directly to the establishment, money spent at the co-op stays local and continues to serve small businesses. This is why the grocer remains heavily-reliant on community membership.

Fortunately, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic Struthers said membership at the co-op grew exponentially due to the public’s increasing concern with shopping indoors. Customers, especially those who were immunocompromised, were appreciative of the “Crop Box” delivery service.

“People became more interested in making sure that we had food [in Riverside], growing here, and being packed here,” Struthers said.

In the future, the co-op hopes to open a permanent “economically viable” grocery store, which would include general produce as well as spices and other products, for its customers and the community.  However, regardless of whether members want to pay for a monthly produce box, increased membership and fundraising would be the primary catalysts to achieving that goal. To do that, Struthers said the co-op is confident more in-person events will bring awareness to the organization.

Next month, the co-op will host their second  “Unpacking the Crop Box,” an event that shows attendees how to prepare meals solely by utilizing the contents of the box with the help of its chef.  The event is scheduled for Jan. 15, 2022. It is free and open to the public.