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People’s Food Co-op of La Crosse turns 40

PFC's Legacy in La Crosse

People’s Food Co-op t-shirt, circa 1985. Design by Paula Mintek.

“We started talking about gardening and small farming at rap sessions [intense discussions held on particular subjects] at the university back in 1972,” founding (and continuing) member Tom Gianoli told the La Crosse Tribune in 1977.

In 1973, People’s Food Co-op escaped from a UW–
La Crosse-area basement and rented a north side storefront at 430 Avon St. for $40 a month. An early flyer laid out the terms of membership: “Anyone who pays $5 per year and works four hours per month may belong.”
For some context, it helps to remember that in the early 1970s the two big groceries in town were A&P and
K-Mart (A&P is long gone; K-Mart is still here but no longer carries produce); Richard Nixon didn’t resign until 1974; and people thought Chevy Chase was funny. Many of the young men joining People’s Food Co-op were subject to a military draft, with the possibility of being sent to a war in Vietnam. By 1975, as the U.S. went about losing its war in S.E. Asia, the Co-op moved to La Crosse’s south side, to 1127 Eighth Avenue.
People joined looking for community, for like-minded individuals, for healthy, alternative food choices to what was available at the conventional markets. The Co-op prospered at the Eighth Avenue location. An early Tribune article praised the place as a “gourmet heaven” with all of the exotic spices available at very reasonable prices. The store’s first paid employee, manager Johnny Haag, recalls coaxing tentative neighbors into the Co-op with enticing smells of “star anise and other herbs in the gallon jars.”
Bulk Transcendentalismo
“Food for people, not for profit,” read the sign prominently displayed at the store. And indeed, the early years of the Co-op relied heavily on charity benefits and a great deal of volunteer labor. The first three stores required new floors, new roofs, new walls, new doors. But in listening to the stories the early members tell of long hours of volunteer construction labor, it’s clear that these stories are balanced by fond memories of shared dinners, winter bonfire parties, tears and laughter—all the camaraderie and friendship that nourishes people in a manner rarely found in contemporary American life. In listening to these stories the meaning of the store slogan becomes clear: The people were the profit. The food and the co-op were simply the excuse to bring them together.
Ann O’Malley, once and future accountant for People’s Food Co-op, remembers that the Co-op was often at risk of running out of funding. “We usually didn’t make a profit, unless we had a benefit concert, or Sue [Knopf] sold a quilt.” An example of the many fund-raisers was the concert that “Banjo” Fred Starner and Larry Penn arranged in 1986. Fred Starner was a UW–L economics professor, a protégé of folk music icon Pete Seeger, and founder of La Crosse’s yearly Great River Folk Festival. The 1986 PFC benefit grew into a combined concert, folk dance, bake sale, and special children’s concert held at the Concordia Ballroom on La Crosse Street. The benefit raised $282 for the Co-op, which ended up being donated to the purchase of needed medicines for PFC’s Central American sister ­co-operative [see sidebar].
By the late 1970s, People’s had outgrown the Eighth Avenue store. Bruha’s Grocery on Ninth Avenue was for sale, and after extended negotiations with old Mr. Bruha, the place was bought. It was a short walk from the old store to the new, so the volunteer membership turned out for a bucket brigade to move store inventory to the new location in the spring of 1981.
In 1980, then manager Lari Meier bought PFC’s first electronic cash register and receipts were no longer totaled up by pencil. “What a lot of food went in and out of that tiny store,” Lari remarked in a recent email, “from the [delivery] truck down the outdoor steps, into the old cistern room and basement, and back up the stairs to be stocked into the bins. The manager's “office” was in the back corner on a platform, under which more food was stashed. To get up into the office you had to step onto a radiator.”
In a 1975 profile of People’s Food Co-op, the grocery manager of the local K-Mart doubted “whether a co-op operation could ever support the quantity of customers that a retail grocery store does. I also doubt whether there is much of a market for natural foods.” K-Mart’s produce operation is now gone and other La Crosse grocery retailers have come and gone as well, but People’s has grown and prospered. When asked how People’s Food Co-op managed to survive and thrive through the years when so many other food cooperatives have failed, early member Bob Bilby points to People’s produce department. “We had the largest proportion of produce sales of any comparably sized store. We had a market analysis done when we were considering the later move downtown, and the outside experts could not believe how much produce the Co-op moved.”
A large part of the story is told in the dedication of the staff. Many of the people now at the Co-op have been employed here for more than two decades. Folks such as Frank Menaloscino (33 years), Ann O’Malley (32 years), Margaret Mills (28 years), Yeng Yang (23 years), Jen McCoy (20 years), Roger Bertsch (20 years), and many others have worked to see that the Co-op survives and thrives.
Perhaps another reason for the success of the Co-op is that it is, through its membership, community owned. It may be a comparatively small thing, but even such an investment as a ­
Co-op membership represents an investment in our city and in our farmers and producers. Community investment is something most corporations lost interest in a long time ago.
And, as former PFC General Manager Peg Nolan noted in 1993: “I love the idea of co-ops because they are from the people. They are based on people making decisions for themselves. And they’re fun; where else can we try whatever we want without someone miles away having to make a decision on whether it will make a dollar?”
In 1993, People’s Food Co-op moved once again, this time with trucks rather than by bucket brigade, to its current location in downtown La Crosse. The Co-op continues to grow. In 2011, People’s Food Co-op merged with the Good Foods Store of Rochester, and in March 2013, member number 6000 joined that core group of members who started it all 40 years ago.