Happy Food, Happy People: A Tour Inside The Isla Vista Food Co-op


Anis Vijay Modi
Staff Writer

Honey coconut almonds, banana chips, and “hippie” popcorn—the Isla Vista Food Co-op has it all. A simple walk through the store’s aisles can be quite dazzling. A quick glance to the right, and one might find nuts imported directly from Sudan. Look to the left, and you’ll find produce fresh out of the farms and lands of Santa Barbara County. What exactly is the point of this 40-year-old grassroots market?

“We believe that it is important to have access to high quality food,” said Melissa Cohen, the Co-op’s general manager and a University of California, Santa Barbara alum herself.

Guiding a group of students through a comprehensive Co-op tour last Friday, Cohen tried to explain the unique quality that drives the store: “Isla Vista has a very dynamic food market. We see ourselves as part of a hub of great food culture, which supplies students with a better opportunity to live an educated and healthy lifestyle.”

That same spirit the general manager was talking about is oozing from every shelf, as most products are either locally grown, organic, free trade certified, or a combination of the three. The vibrant produce section, for example, contains produce that is mostly grown in Santa Barbara. It is now stocked with some of the spring season’s favorite crops, such as asparagus and, above all, succulent cherries which drew every shopper’s attention.

“Eating with season is the best way to go as far as health is concerned. In addition to the shot of health your body gets thanks to the variety of foods, it also makes shoppers think more about their next meal. [This] results in individuals who are more active and educated about what they eat,” said Cohen. “It just requires getting out of the mindset that is used to just going to the giant supermarket and getting your regular favorites.”

As the group walked towards the back of the store, they were able to enjoy some of the all natural popcorn from the store’s new popcorn machine and a taste of locally grown oranges. Midway through one of Cohen’s explanations, Andrew Seber, a third-year linguistics and art history double major at UCSB, explained why he loves working at the Co-op so much.

“I just started working here. This is my least paid job, but I am the happiest I have ever been. What makes me so happy is the fact that, every Monday, we see how much of our profit goes back into this community through our business with local farmers.” This week, the sign reads, 52 percent of the Co-op’s profits went back into our community.

Other than being able to purchase the higher quality food, any shopper that walks into the Co-op would be quick to notice another sign of the food’s superiority: the price. Prices do vary between products, but it is easy to notice that some of them have an extra couple of dollars tacked onto the bottom line.

“Some things must cost a bit more here, but we believe that it is worth it. We do not have a big boss sitting in a back office, just waiting for the money to come in. Every dollar that you invest in this place comes back to the community,” Cohen explained. “It comes back to the people who nurtured and brought you these great products and, eventually, the food that you eat.”

The trifecta of healthy mind-body-spirit seems to take great importance at the Co-op, as it aims to rely on responsible suppliers, provide people with healthy food choices, and educate them as well.  It is about quality food and healthiness, but, above all, the Isla Vista Food Co-op is about one thing: the IV community.