Washougal food co-op could become community touchstone

Recently asked to describe Washougal to a friend from Portland, I told her the town’s blossoming downtown business core reminded me of our own outer East Portland Montavilla neighborhood about 15 years ago — before Southeast Stark Street, between Southeast 74th and 82nd avenues, the heart of our “Mt. Tabor Village,” grew into the thriving small business and foodie district it is today.

So, reading in Post-Record reporter Dawn Feldhaus’ story, printed on page A1 of today’s paper, that Shougfood, the group exploring a Washougal area food co-op, hopes to meet with the folks behind the Montavilla Food Co-op (MFC), came as no surprise. In fact, the MFC group can likely give some beneficial guidance to the Shougfood founders.

Started in 2010 by a group of Montavilla neighbors who wanted to, according to the MFC Mission Statement, “connect the East Portland community to healthy food, support local farmers and producers, build community wealth and advance sustainability initiatives all within a centrally located, cooperative grocery,” the MFC has slowly grown from a core group of grassroots supporters — much like the Shougfood group is today — to a group that includes hundreds of members and support from more than 40 Portland-area businesses.

Washougal, like Montavilla, is not considered a “food desert,” or area where mostly low-income people have trouble accessing affordable fresh food. There is a grocery store in Washougal and other grocers in nearby Camas. People can find fresh food in Washougal, but having a community supported food co-op is still appealing.

Shougfood founder Alex Yost, co-owner of the popular OurBar in downtown Washougal, says she pictures the food co-op servicing people within walking and driving distance of the town’s downtown core.

The group’s vision is to provide Washougal and Camas area residents with a co-op that offers year round access to organic, sustainable and healthy foods from local farms.

In other areas, food co-ops provide so much more than access to locally grown, organic produce. These types of community-supported, member-owned entities often become a touchstone for community gatherings and educational programs.

In White River Junction, Vermont, for instance, the 42-year-old Upper Valley Food Co-op, and its 1,000 members, run a community garden, host a monthly movie series on environmental and nutrition-related topics and even acts as a town library. In Northampton, Massachusetts, the local food co-op has a community meeting room and cafe, and offers assistance to low-income families.

Having a Washougal-based food co-op, a reality Yost has acknowledged will likely be “a marathon, not a sprint,” could provide the Camas-Washougal community with a place where conversations about the health and environmental benefits of “eating local” could flourish.

We can imagine programs like the Camas Farmer’s Market’s “Produce Pals,” which connects local children to the farmers who grow their food — and allows the youngsters to select a new fruit or vegetable to take home each week — happening on a much larger scale at a Washougal food cooperative.

Camas-Washougal residents, government leaders and business owners who back the type of “buy local” efforts that created a bustling Camas downtown and have taken root in Washougal’s beginning-to-blossom downtown business district should throw their full support to the Shougfood group and help turn this food cooperative dream into a reality.

~ Post-Record Managing Editor Kelly Moyer