Nestled adjacent to Dikken’s Furniture & Decorating and Timmerman Taekwondo Studio on Blue Earth’s Main Street is the Rainbow Food Co-op.
The cooperative was founded in 1979 and has been an integral part of Blue Earth for over 40 years. Despite this, manager Steve Tenney suspects there are misunderstandings about his role in the community.
In fact, now you may be wondering “What exactly is a cooperative?”
A food cooperative or food coop, in official jargon, is a food distribution point organized as a cooperative. In other words, it belongs to its community, not to a private or public entity.
“People don’t realize it’s owned by the community, not a big company — that’s important for a number of reasons.”Says Tenney. “The money you spend here stays here.”
He continues “We’re not here to make big profits. Instead, we offer quality, affordable items that are grown or raised by your friends and neighbors.”
And Tenney clarifies that locals don’t have to become a member of the Rainbow Food Co-op to shop there. Although some cooperatives require memberships or fees, the Blue Earth cooperative does not.
After pushing open the front door of the Rainbow Food Co-op, customers are greeted with an enticing array of produce, many locally produced and even more containing natural, nutritious ingredients.
“I try to have quality stuff,”Tenney summarizes.
The left wall of the store is lined with bulky items.
“We have over 400 items in bulk including 17 different flours for bread making”,Says Tenney. Other items in bulk containers include candy, nuts, wild rice, dried fruit, grains and spices, and trail mix.
“Our dried fruit, nuts and candies come from a Minnesota supplier and I believe they are the best quality on the market.”Says Tenney.
A wander through other aisles of the store reveals other pleasant surprises, many of which are locally delivered.
Whole Grain Milling Co, a Welcome-based manufacturer of whole grains, supplies the cooperative’s stock of delicious tortilla chips.
Meanwhile, Honey Hills Farm, a business owned by Blue Earth resident Mary Hickerson, supplies some of the handcrafted goat’s milk skincare products that line the shelves in the co-op’s sunny front window.
There’s more local produce, from organic eggs — Tenney sells about 20 dozen a week — to maple syrup and meat products, to honey, garlic, coffee, and other gift items.
Tenney likes that many of the co-op’s products are locally sourced.
“It gives locals the opportunity to have a presence in a store where they might not otherwise be welcome.”he says, adding that he works with some local suppliers on a consignment basis. “It allows local people to have a presence in a local business.”
The Rainbow Food Co-op’s meat cooler, which lines the left wall of the store, is a particularly interesting microcosm of locally sourced meat products.
“One of the newest additions to the co-op is our range of meats, all locally raised and packaged,”Says Tenney.
A local producer, Scott Haase, owns Blue Dirt Farm, a bucolic stretch of tree-covered terrain south of Blue Earth.
Haase has supplied pork products for the Rainbow Food Co-op for the past two years, but his relationship with Blue Earth’s co-op stretches well beyond that time frame.
“My mom volunteered there when I was a baby or toddler,”Hase remembers. “I remember hanging out under the counter.”
Though he’s now — most likely — too big to fit under the Rainbow Food Co-op’s counter, Haase still contributes his pasture and forest hog products to the Co-op’s meat fridge.
Haase crosses Mangalitza pigs – a unique breed of pig developed in Hungary almost 200 years ago – with Berkshire pigs and lets them roam and graze freely on his farm.
According to Tenney, you can taste the difference. “(Haases) pigs are not kept in cages”he says. “They are raised to have more fat and marbling.”
In addition to valuing quality food, Haase, a former board member of Rainbow Food Coop, is committed to supporting local businesses and producers.
“It helps us as a community in many ways,”says rabbit. “It’s a shame that we have some of the most fertile soil in the country and we mainly export soybeans and corn. If we can leverage the resources we have here, it can help the entire community function better.”
Goette Farms in rural Bricelyn is another local producer whose meat products can be found in the Rainbow Food Co-op’s expansive freezer.
Owners Brandon and Erika Goette raise beef, lamb and chicken products on their Bricelyn property, but also work with other producers.
“We’re working with a friend from Blooming Prairie who has pigs,”says Erika Goette. Goette Farms also offers Wisconsin cheese and maple syrup.
However, Goette Farms’ signature product might just be its lamb.
The Goettes began raising lambs years ago in South Dakota and eventually transitioned to full-time lamb production in 2018 after moving to Bricelyn.
They found the Rainbow Food Co-op through a fellow producer at the Blue Earth Farmers’ Market who suggested the Co-op as a potential seller for their products.
Tenney says Goettes lamb has been a hit with customers ever since.
“There’s a surprising number of people looking for lamb,”he notices.
Goette is another big believer in buying local produce.
“Personally, we try to source all of our food products locally,”says goddess. “If I don’t support local, why should people support me?”
Tenney adds that the decision to shop local goes beyond ethics; It’s also a simple matter of quality.
“It’s very satisfying to come to work knowing that I’m providing local restaurants, families and individuals with the best quality I can find, while also being eco-friendly with less packaging and allowing customers to refill their own bins “Says Tenney.
He comes to the conclusion “We were recently approved to accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, so I encourage everyone to come in and explore what we have to offer.”