By Jim Shilander
There’s a small group of people trying to expand their love of fresh food to a new audience in San Clemente.
The San Clemente Community Market, a food co-operative started in 2010, regularly brings organic, locally grown produce into the city. Currently, only members of the co-operative are able to purchase the food, which is brought into the city from several locations throughout southern California. But the group is hoping that soon, a market may be opened up to the entire community.
Sam Olmstead, one of the founders of the group, said ultimately the organization wants to operate a full-service grocery store with organic produce and a focus on locally sourced products.
“We started talking about it in 2009, and we began organizing in 2010,” Olmstead said. “It was just necessity. It’s just tough to get fresh local organic produce in San Clemente.”
Olmstead said the nearby border checkpoint south of San Clemente makes some farmers wary of sending produce north.
Olmstead admitted that he had looked at the possibility of opening his own natural food store in town, but found it wasn’t a good idea. “I realized it would fail pretty fast. The larger grocery stores can just crush you on price.” At that point, he started investigating co-operatives.
“I thought that would be the ticket. I started going to see groups and talk about it, and people seemed interested. We did an online survey and got over 400 responses from people who said they might join the co-op.”
If the co-op market does open, it would be the first of its type in Orange County.
Olmstead said the membership goal for the group would eventually be 1,500 people. “You could call it social entrepreneurship. The co-operative is established on a business model that works. Everyone who owns it has a stake in perpetuating it. San Clemente would be a great place for it.”
It will probably take about 750 members to begin seriously looking at opening a market, Olmstead noted. Membership is currently about 65.
Those early days, Olmstead said, were full of “visioning sessions,” where potential members described what they were looking for in a co-operative and a grocery store.
While currently only members are able to purchase items, Olmstead said a store would be open to the public at large. A “Frequently Asked Questions” document provided by the organization states that a feasibility study will soon be underway to look at three possible locations for a store.
Members pay an initial fee to join the group, which is pooled into a fund to provide initial financing for a store. This encourages members to recruit others, since more investors means that a store might be opened sooner. Members can receive their initial membership fee of $300 back if they move or if they decide to no longer be involved, though those people would have to wait for a new person to arrive. Most new members are recruited by friends and neighbors currently involved with the market, or from meeting people at community events, where Olmstead or other board members will often set up shop. Members are not required to work at the current market and would not have to work at the store once it opened, Olmstead said.
One of the great benefits of the effort, he said, was that it provided a community of similar-minded people to be a part of.
“I found out that this is much bigger than just access to food. I’ve met so many wonderful people doing this. It’s created a community. It’s not corporate, it’s owned by the people.”
Devon Azzam was one of the first to become a part of the co-op effort. Azzam, who formerly lived in Santa Barbara, had been a part of an established co-op there, even joining the board, before moving to San Clemente. She said her previous experience was so positive it really made her want to bring something similar here.
“It provided me with a sense of community,” Azzam said. “There were familiar faces, and it was a very warm, family feeling. It just felt very comfortable in the place that I was living, and the co-op was a big part of that.”
Azzam agreed that San Clemente could be a good place for a co-op.
“I feel like there are a lot of people who are concerned about where their food is coming from, who want good food from the local area. It’s good timing in that respect. There are a lot of families, people wanting healthy kids and a healthy community.”
Azzam said she’s seen a lot of dedication in the volunteers and board members here in San Clemente. The co-op she was a part of in Santa Barbara had been established in the 70s, with much of the organizational work
“This has taken a lot more organization and dedication,” Azzam said. “It’s been much more challenging. But I’ve gotten to know the people a lot better. It’s a pretty dedicated group.”
While most of the other board members haven’t been a part of a co-op board, Azzam said most have shopped at co-ops before, so they have some knowledge of what they would like to see in San Clemente.
One new recruit is Susan Parmelee, who was just named to the board of the organization after being a part of it for the last year. Parmelee said she was recruited to join the market by Olmstead, who she’s worked with as part of the San Clemente Collaborative, the volunteer organization, for the last three years.
“We were working on the health committee (of the collaborative), and he told me about it. To me, it was a great idea. Right now, it’s a pretty small group, but most of the people are new to me. It’s great to be a part of something like this.”
Parmelee, who has been a part of a number of community initiatives, such as working in a homeless shelter and working as a counselor at Western Family Services, said the key for her is the opportunities the co-op could potentially provide for people.
“I like that we’re trying to make groceries more local, to listen to what the community wants,” Parmelee said. She hoped that when the brick and mortar store actually came to fruition, it could provide a number of jobs for people in the community.
The market currently operates out of a donated space on Calle Valle, where members can come to pick up items at a weekly market when food arrives from suppliers. There are a number of good local sources for produce, Olmstead said, including a number of farms near Escondido. The co-operative also receives apples and stone fruits from Lodi and avocados and citrus from Valley Center.
The co-operative will be hosting an informational event Saturday at 9 a.m. at it’s location at 1506 Calle Valle. For more information contact 949.441.1266, or www.sanclementemarket.com.