Food with Your Name on It: TBC Thrives through Intimate Connections

It is March 25th – the Good Friday holiday – and throughout Winston-Salem, the pace is a bit slower than usual. But at the Triad Buying Co-op, there is a buzz of activity as TBC owner-volunteers sort and set out food and products for TBC members to drop by and collect.

In one member’s bin you might find dates, cashews and specialty beverages from outside North Carolina. In another, locally-sourced produce and products. Many items are individually packaged from a bulk order and, owing to the co-op’s mantra of “food with your name on it”, each order is personalized.

Some members will take delivery on vegan food, while others pick up eggs delivered from a producer they know and a chicken they met. A local baker is here providing food samples and offering bread and granola for sale to members who drop in. A few folks seem particularly smitten with bagged jalapeno cheese puffs from a national wholesale baker.

It is March 25th – “Delivery Day” – and at the Triad Buying Co-op, it is a very good Friday indeed.

TBC began in Winston-Salem in the 1980s around a kitchen table. At the time, the city had no source of organic food. “Local” and “sustainable” were not much in demand here. So a small group of members formed TBC to gain purchasing scale in order to help them get those healthier food choices – with an emphasis on local producers.

Over time, the kitchen table start led to the formation of s small cooperative organization. TBC has called a few spaces home through the years as it grew, including two church kitchens. For the last few years TBC has operated in a brightly-colored space in an old warehouse located just south of the Old Salem Visitor’s Center.

“We are bigger and better than we used to be,” said Ann Bliss, a TBC board member “but I think we still hold to those cooperative values and that commitment to quality food and a food system that is fair and just and sustainable.” Those values have also allowed TBC to thrive even as the general public and, in some ways, the retail grocery marketplace caught up to that kitchen table vision some 30 years ago.

The Value of the Volunteer Model

The TBC model is built on volunteer support from the membership. Members commit to volunteering a minimum of 3-4 hours a month on a variety of tasks. Some volunteers might bag individual orders of oatmeal, others weigh, slice and package meats & cheeses. Still others may serve as liaisons with the TBC wholesale partners, which include Frontier Natural Products (also a co-op). Even the online platform for ordering the products offered by the membership was developed by a TBC member.

No matter how simple or complex the task, each member plays a key role in the aggregating and organizing the wide variety of member orders from a range of local and national producers. Each task is one movement in a larger choreography of getting food to the membership on a monthly basis. Just after delivery day, the four-week dance starts anew.

The volunteer approach also leads to a deeply connected community of people who may have different preferences, philosophies and approaches to food but who share a common vision for receiving it in a way that benefits the local community and leads to sustainability.

“It works … it works”, Amy Medwin said of TBC. Medwin has been a TBC owner-volunteer since its earliest days. “That’s kind of a cool thing because we are so different,” she added. “We can do this and make it work but we don’t have to believe everything just alike or look just alike or think just alike.”

According to Bliss, TBC holds steady around 70 families who form the core of the membership. Despite its small number of owners, the co-op continues to think big through a process of participatory democracy and a commitment to its core mission of connecting members to local producers.

That participatory process has lead to continual innovation in TBC’s operations and a deeply connected community. At the suggestion of members, TBC recently rolled out its “Fly the Co-op” program of ongoing member events. From wine tasting in a member’s home to assisting a local farmer in planting garlic, these events reinforce the mission of the co-op, and provide education about the food system to the membership.

One member designed her own volunteer project, suggesting to the board that she could enhance the TBC recycling program. The result is a robust collection of products that would otherwise end up in the landfill being transported by the member once each month to the appropriate recycling center.

“There are tasks that we create because we need them as a co-op,” Bliss remarked about the recycling project “but we also invite our members to invent their own contribution – their own job description.”

In addition to the mix of locally-sourced goods, TBC stocks name-brand goods from wholesale partners. Thanks to the volunteer-owner model and a constant search for used or donated equipment to sustain operations, the co-op’s product pricing is fairly competitive when compared to the same selections in retail stores.

But for Bliss and the TBC board and membership, price has never been the driving factor in the co-op’s approach. “You probably could be able to get your eggs a little cheaper somewhere else,” she says “but you’re not necessarily going to get a chance to meet the gals who lay the eggs.”

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