Over the decades Isla Vista has seen many changes, but a familiar sight to past and present residents of the community is the Isla Vista Food Co-op.
Situated on 6575 Seville Rd. and established in 1972, the I.V. Food Co-op aims not only to provide residents and UCSB students with healthy and affordable food, but also foster a sense of community while promoting environmentally sustainable lifestyles.
“The Co-op started as an incredible project between the community and some students,” said Melissa Cohen, General Manager for the I.V. Food Co-op and a UCSB alumna.
Since its inception, the Co-op has been community-owned. “Every single person that shopped here in the first years was an owner of the business,” said Cohen. She explained that once enough individuals had placed equity in the Co-op, it was able to begin selling its products to the whole community, not just its members.
Rebecca Roberts, Store Manager for the I.V. Food Co-op, credits initially joining the Co-op back in 2014 (during her junior year at UCSB) to its welcoming environment, organic and fair trade offerings, and the convenience of riding her bike to get groceries.
“I loved the idea that the money I was spending was going directly back into the store, workers’ wages, community partnerships — that it was being used for the good of the community rather than to enrich a single individual or group of people,” said Roberts.
Cohen states that corporate grocery stores do not reflect the needs of local communities, but instead reflect national trends.
“When you shop at the Food Co-op … you support businesses that change [products], every year based on who is shopping,” Cohen said. Over the years, the Co-op has added new food products such as rice, beans, and pasta; all of which you would not have found in the store 10 years ago.
Despite being over 40 years old, the Co-op remains a prominent fixture in the community. Cohen contributes the Co-op’s continued relevance to its outreach programs and partnerships with UCSB campus entities like The Food and Nutrition Basic Skills program and the Food Security Taskforce, both of which the Co-op has partnered with to promote healthier lifestyles to students.
In addition to meeting the grocery needs of the I.V. community, the Co-op also seeks to educate people on how to affordably live healthy and environmentally sustainable lifestyles.
Recently the Co-op hosted its “Be Great At Grocery Shopping” workshop, held once a quarter, which provides tips on how to successfully stock a kitchen, and a DIY Beeswax wrapper workshop, where they teach participants how to make reusable plastic wrap out of beeswax.
“Our workshops are rooted around how to maximize your budget [in regards to groceries] and understand how to do that at the Co-op,” Cohen said. Additionally the Co-op also holds tasting events about once a week, where people can sample the brands and products available in the store.
Cohen notes that the Co-op has had to change over the years not only to remain relevant, but also to stay in business. She recalls that in 2006, the Co-op almost closed.
“There [were] not enough people who understood who we were and why we were here, and I don’t think we even understood it — we were racing against our employee turnover, and our customer turnover,” Cohen said.
By creating more partnerships with the University and updating their inventory to reflect the needs of the community, the Co-op was able to overcome its financial trouble.
Though the Co-op is now in a much more financially secure position, Cohen admits that there are still challenges in running a business in I.V.’s unique environment. In particular, it can be difficult for the Co-op to surmount lulls in business during the summer and winter months when students are away from school on vacation.
“To operate a business that is a 12 month-a-year business but only having 9 months a year of actual sales is very difficult,” Cohen said.
To overcome those difficulties, the Co-op adjusts its hours of operations and relies on the equity it garners from its members.
Despite the challenges that arise at times, Cohen believes that the Co-op serves an important and necessary role for the I.V. community.
“People are looking to be part of healthier communities and healthier lifestyles,” Cohen said. “Everyone deserves to have a healthy functioning community where you can be seen, feel heard, feel valued, and feel cared for.”