‘A friendly, honest place.’9/5/2018
“My motto is to buy from people you know and as close to home as you can get.” — Lisa Bean
Nearly 45 years ago, the Iowa City Coop was on the second floor of an old building on Gilbert Street. A sanctuary of organic foods and small producers. Back in those days, membership was by dues or work. I chose work. It was a big open space with barrels and bins spread throughout the upstairs of the red-brick warehouse. The overpowering smell of open spice containers and overflowing barrels of grain and baked breads and funky foods was a heady delight when I’d show up to do my hour or so of work. One would have almost believed I was there because I cared about the environment, or I cared about where my food came from, or I cared about small farmers.
I couldn’t have cared less.
I saw the Coop as an expressway to meeting women. Unfortunately, I didn’t bank on my personality accompanying me to this new environment. It did. But a byproduct of my failed efforts? A love of food coops and all they stand for.
Naturally, I had to go in the doors of the Iowa Food Cooperative (IFC) at 4944 Franklin Ave.
Lord, this is not the spilled grain of the old days. Giant refrigerators and freezers and shelves full of items carefully marked and catalogued and bar-coded. You can hear the hum of efficiency as products from more than 90 small producers and farmers are matched to members’ orders posted online. The requested items are then carefully sorted and boxed and delivered to a pick-up site to be collected by you.
Lisa Bean is a tall, slender woman with gentle eyes and an accent reflecting her long-ago origins in New York City.
“This all started for me when I began to think a lot more about where my food was coming from, and I wanted to know more about it.”
Lisa pauses, gives a slight smile.
“Then I started volunteering at IFC. Then I got on the board, then I became the board president, and then I went off the board, and then I went back on the board. Now I’m the volunteer coordinator.”
All spoken in a tone of “can you believe I’m still doing this?”
Lisa walks down the rows of refrigerated and frozen items and stacked shelves and starts telling me stories about each farmer and small producer.
“Well, this is Radiance Dairy owned by Francis Thicke. He has a wonderful organic dairy.”
And what is so special about him?
Well, Lisa explains, once the cows are done as milking cows at Radiance Dairy, they are not slaughtered but are literally put out to pasture. Or, as Norma Ames, the computer whiz at IFC puts it, “cow retirement.”
Lisa continues walking and talking.
“Pickle Creek, they do herbs and garlic and infused oils. And now she is making some pesto. They grow such quality plants, and they love their plants.”
Really? Love their plants? Come on.
“They play music to their plants in the greenhouses. And he always delivers with a smile on his face. They are both retired chemists from Chicago.”
Retired chemists from Chicago with musically appreciative herb gardens — I hear that all the time. Who’s next?
“We have Agri-Cultured foods, which makes fermented kombucha. We sell like 25 gallons of kombucha.”
You’re making this up.
“No, they are based in Waukee. They bought the old St. Boniface Hall and do all their stuff there. They make kimchee, sauerkraut, pickles, hummus and kombucha. And really good breads, too.”
Sauerkraut from the suburbs?
“Pete Waltz is a founding member of IFC. His pork is all flax fed. He’s a pretty cool guy. He has a small store in Osceola that sells all Iowa products.”
Of course he does.
“Lucky George. He’s interesting. He’s a retired cellphone salesman. He and his wife are running a multiple animal farm with heritage pork.”
And on and on goes Lisa, speaking of the farmers as if they were her relatives — the kind you would actually enjoy sitting next to while eating potato salad.
Coming from the Big City, Lisa, how does this all work for you?
“I love it. We actually have a farm that was corn and soybeans, 30 acres. We converted that to natural prairie. We now have a really good stand of short and tall grass prairie. We have chickens and goats and alpacas for fun. The goats are for grazing. I’m trying to restore our timber to the way it used to be.”
It all seems like a lot of work. Why volunteer at IFC?
“I love all the people. We get to know each other, and we have 30-35 volunteers come every time.”
Are you serious?
“I think people like the community of it.”
Lisa pauses, thinking.
“At least for me, it feels like things are a little bit out of control in the world.”
A slightly embarrassed smile appears, afraid of sounding pretentious.
“Here, I feel like I’m doing a small part to make the world feel like a friendly, honest place.”
OK, I can buy that… and maybe some kombucha, if you have any left. ♦
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: