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updated: 3/4/2014 4:42 PM

Proposed Batavia grocery co-op amping up effort

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An effort to bring a cooperative grocery store to Batavia is picking up steam, with the start of monthly community meetings and the election of a board of directors for the business.

The first of the monthly Green Tomato Grocery meetings is from 7 to 8:15 p.m. Thursday at the Batavia Public Library, 10 S. Batavia Ave.

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The meetings will keep prospective owners updated on the organization. The board of directors will be introduced Thursday, cooperative goals will be discussed, and benefits reviewed, according to the agenda published at greentomato.coop.

Happening now

In February, a five-member board of directors was elected. And they and other volunteers are working on getting the effort incorporated, so that it can begin raising money.

About 60 people attended a Feb. 1 meeting to learn more about what proponents had been doing, since the effort began in the fall of 2012.

The small band of organizers have been studying other cooperatives; gauging interest via surveys and appearances at community events in Batavia; learning about the legal structure of a cooperative; applying for incorporation; and drawing up bylaws.

Director Jennifer Echert said the organizers want at least 1,000 members pledged before opening a store. Their initial assessment indicates the area has the education, population and income to support a grocery cooperative, said Kelline Matthews, another director.

"We need a lot of people to create this grocery," Matthews said. Committees are forming to set up financial systems, organize fundraisers for startup costs, look for buildings and more. "If you're a project manager, we would love to talk to you,"

The task seems daunting. But interest in food cooperatives is growing nationwide, according to Matthews.

One of the group's major tasks is educating people about cooperatives. They are not as prevalent in Illinois as they are in Iowa, Minnesota and on the East and West coasts. The closest food cooperative is Duck Soup in DeKalb. There are efforts under way to form cooperatives in Lombard, Lisle and Elgin, Matthews said.

Although organizers didn't ask for money at the February meeting, people gave about $600 toward startup costs.

One of the big-ticket items is a formal feasibility study of the market, which the directors will cost $13,000 to $20,000. Green Tomato may seek a grant for the study from Food Co-Op Initiative, a nonprofit foundation that advises startup co-ops.

Takes time

FCI estimates it can take two to four years to establish a cooperative, and cautions groups about rushing to market without having a detailed plan and sufficient capital. According to FCI, it can take several years for a cooperative to become profitable. Green Tomato estimates it could open in 2016. "I think we need to be realistic, and realize that's what it is," said Batavia Alderman Lucy Thelin Atac, who is involved the in the effort.

The Batavia group has not picked a location. It might not even end up in Batavia, although organizers initially thought it would be a good fit in the downtown. The location will ultimately be determined by membership, It could turn out that a non-downtown space would be better for the cooperative, for delivery-truck access, parking, and availability to members, according to Feb. 1 presentation. And people from nearby towns, including Aurora and Geneva, have expressed interest.

"I live in Aurora, but I would drive over here in a heartbeat to shop at a cooperative I'm part in," Matthews said.

Secondly, initial organizers wanted a place focused on organic, locally grown, fresh and "responsibly produced" food, where employees are paid "living wages" and benefits and shoppers are educated about eating healthfully. Some in the audience at the Feb. 1 meeting wondered whether the co-op would also feature foods made with non-genetically modified ingredients. Again, that would be determined by votes of the membership, leaders said. The store could just label things, so shoppers can choose.

"Truly, the proposed co-op is about 'the people who own it get to make the decisions,' " director Jennifer Echert said.

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