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After 30 years, Rainbow Food Co-op going strong

By Staff | Dec 21, 2009

Rainbow Food Co-op employees, Alissa Mack, Anna Haase and Marilyn Palm in front of the store in Blue Earth. To see more photographs of this story, log on to http://cu.faribaultcountyregister.com

This past Nov. 1 was a milestone for an unusual downtown Blue Earth business.

The Rainbow Food Co-op celebrated their 30th anniversary. What started as an idea by Blue Earth resident Mary Adams has continued to grow and serve a large clientele.

Adams had a son with numerous food allergies and she was tired of having to drive to Mankato to get natural and organic foods. So, in 1979 she decided to take action.

“She put an ad in the paper announcing a meeting to discuss starting a food cooperative,” remembers Marilyn Palm. “The people who responded formed a committee to explore the possibility.”

Palm missed that initial meeting, but made it to every one since then. She became the manager of the food co-op 27 years ago, and continues to be the person in charge.

She quickly points out, however, that there are many others who own the business.

The committee formed in 1979 became a corporation with a seven person board of directors. The board continues to make all of the major decisions.

In order to get the cooperative started, one person fronted a $500 personal loan and ownership shares in the corporation were sold at $5 each. In July of 2007 the number of shareholders topped 500 persons – and is still growing.

“If you join you have to buy at least two shares,” Palm explains. If a member wishes to get out of ownership, they are paid for their shares. But that doesn’t happen too often, Palm says.

“Even when people move away, they keep their shares,” she explains.

Just because they own shares does not mean they get to vote for – or run for – the board of directors. Or get dividends for that matter.

“Our shareholders need to do at least 10 hours of volunteer work in the store in order to be able to vote or run for the board,” Palm says. Plus, only volunteers receive dividends, based on the number of hours they work.

So how many of the 500-plus shareholders volunteer to work in the store? She says it used to be a large number in years past, but now has shrunk to maybe 15 people, besides the board members themselves.

Three of the volunteer workers also get a paycheck. In addition to Palm as manager, Anna Haase is the assistant manager and bookkeeper, and Alissa Mack is the clerk.

“We get paid for working part time, and then volunteer a lot more hours,” Palm says.

The store carries a large inventory of natural, wholesome foods in bulk.

“We try to use products with as minimal packaging as possible,” Palm says. They also carry a large inventory of natural food supplements and vitamins and minerals, she says.

“We have a lot of foods for people with food allergies,” Haase adds. “We carry things that are gluten-free, dairy-free, salt-free and have no added sugars.”

Most of the products come from a natural foods wholesaler called United National Foods out of Iowa City, Iowa.

They also get some local products, such as honey from Winnebago and Delavan, and whole grain milling products from Welcome.

Many of the shoppers in the store are also members, but it is not necessary to be a shareholder in order to shop at the co-op.

“We get people in from around the area,” Haase says. “We get new people in every week. Sometimes they comment that they can’t believe the store is here, or that they have never been in it before.”

To read more of this story, see this week’s Register.