Oklahoma Food Co-op Closing after 15 Years

In November 2003, the Oklahoma Food Cooperative made its first delivery. Now, 15 years later, the organization is shutting down.

The OFC has operated a network of farmers, ranchers and artisans from around the state, connecting them to customers who prefer local, natural, homegrown food. But a lack of participation has forced the co-op to call it quits, as October marked the last statewide delivery for the organization.

Marla Saeger, Tahlequah Farmers' Market president, had one of the first offices in Tahlequah where people could pick up produce from the OFC.

"The co-op is based out of Oklahoma City, and people from all over the state sign up as vendors," said Saeger. "They have an online site that is open for like three weeks and then they close it. On one day, everybody from across the state going to one central location: Oklahoma City. All of the items get distributed and then it goes back out [to surrounding areas] for people to pick up."

The organization's high-water mark was in 2011 and 2012, when it saw its biggest revenue. Sales have since trailed off, forcing the board of directors' decision to close shop, according to General Manager Adam Price.

"We've just been seeing, over the course of the past several years, member participation declining and number of orders per month declining," Price said. "The people who have ordered have maintained ordering about as much as they have, but it's the number of people who continued to participate and support the system through ordering on a regular basis that has declined."

The OFC's closure could be attributed to various factors. For instance, access to grocery items is becoming increasingly easier and less costly.

"A pound of ground beef, if you go to Walmart, is about $4.50 to $5 a pound," said Price. "It's about $7 through the co-op. Of course your comparing apples to oranges in terms of product quality. It's not even the same thing - comparing industrial meat to locally raised, pastured, grass-fed meat from an Oklahoma farmer that isn't pumped full of hormones and antibiotics."

Although the quality of produce at the OFC might be higher, that doesn't mean people are willing to shell out a few extra dollars. And while increased competition from big-box retailers has impacted OFC's sales, Price believes customers' decreased buying power has taken the largest toll.

"People's discretionary income has declined," he said. "People's budgets are tighter, and money is not going as far as it used to. So I think people, by virtue of their money not going as far as it used to, are relegating themselves to bargain shopping at Walmart or WinCo [Foods], or wherever it happens to be, and not supporting the local farmers maybe as much as they were able to do a couple years ago.

The state has seen more farmers' markets pop up in recent years. Tahlequah Farmers' Market even had a record-breaking attendance one Saturday this year. But Price doesn't think farmers' markets are to blame for OFC's woes.

"Some of the farmers who sell through the co-op also sell at those farmers' markets," he said. "The anecdotal evidence that I get from them is that farmers' market traffic is down, too, over where it used to be a couple years ago. And at the farmers' markets, it's also not cheap food."

The OFC will have one final delivery in November, but it will not be statewide, so it will not be servicing the Tahlequah area.

All members who place orders in November will have to pick up their orders in Oklahoma City.

By Grant D. Crawford [email protected]

Tahlequah Daily Press October 26, 2018


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