A Publication of WTVP

Anticipated to open by next summer, Peoria Harvest Co-Op is a cooperatively-owned store and community center in the works, focused on providing this region with reasonably-priced, nutritious and organic food grown on local farms. In addition to stocking a year-round supply of natural produce, meats and other health products, the store aims to serve as an educational meeting space to learn about green living and healthy lifestyles.

Several members of the Peoria Harvest Co-Op Board of Directors collaborated on the following interview, including: Gary Chatham, president; Carrie Wallendal, vice president; Sandy Sanders, secretary; Kelly Schneider, treasurer; Melanie Heindl; Bob Allen; and Mike Curry.

Tell us about the origins of Peoria Harvest Co-Op. What motivated you to start the organization?
We are really motivated by wanting to provide a way for the Peoria community to eat healthy in an affordable way. Many diseases and conditions are a result of not eating healthy, and not eating organic. However, it is very expensive to eat organic food from traditional stores.

We also want to support our local farmers who are producing high-quality food that is grown without chemicals and antibiotics (for meats). Studies have shown that as more Illinois farmers grow organic food and sell directly to consumers, the economic well-being of their counties rises.

Several of the board members are transplants from other metro areas that had co-ops. As they moved here, they were surprised that Peoria didn’t have one.

Describe your organizational mission and initial goals.
Our mission is to start a community-based, member-owned health food store. We will focus on locally-grown produce, free of pesticides, with some being certified organic. Our vision is to have a retail store with produce, meats, frozen foods, dairy and dairy alternatives, bulk foods, packaged goods, vitamins and skin care products.

Since we do not need to send profit off to a company, and will keep overhead as low as possible, we will keep prices low as well. By focusing on local food as much as we can, we will keep more money in our local community and support our local farmers. We are basing our store on a successful model used by Common Ground Co-Op in Urbana.

We envision being able to walk into the store and see a photo of the farmer who grew the food in the display, with their location and growing methods on a sign. We want Peoria to know where its food comes from. We also hope the store is an educational center for healthy eating and natural health information, such as cooking classes. A resource library and small bookstore are a part of the plan.

We would like to find a local entrepreneur to co-locate and/or sublease a juice bar and health food cafe with the co-op store. We are hoping to connect with the right business owner soon to be able to add this to our plan.

Why a co-op? What are the benefits?
A co-op is a community-owned and funded business in which each member has an equal voice—it’s a perfect democracy. Each member owns one share in the company and has one vote to elect a board of directors each year. The board hires the management of the store, and the management hires the employees.

Though it is legally a for-profit business, it is essentially run as a nonprofit, in that there is no incentive to make a profit through higher prices. Once our basic expenses are met, our mission is accomplished.

What are the general challenges of setting up a co-op?
The greatest challenges are finding volunteers and obtaining funding. We are currently holding major fundraisers, including one with a well-known local chef cooking a meal out on one of the farms that will be among our suppliers.

In addition to building our membership, we are also looking for individuals interested in investing in our growth and helping to finance the co-op through our member loans program. Co-op member loans will pay back investment with interest over time. This is the same fundraising model successfully used by Common Ground and other co-ops.

We have been encouraged by the findings of a feasibility study that was just completed in May. The co-op was a senior consulting project for Bradley University business students. Their study showed strong community support for the co-op.

Tell us about your membership structure.
Anyone can join as individuals, a couple/family, or business or organization. There is a yearly fee: $75 for individuals, $125 for families/couples and $300 for businesses. We also envision the yearly membership fees going down as more people join. The general public will be able to shop in the store, but will pay higher prices than members. Members will be able to recoup their fees in savings over time.

What about location?
The Bradley feasibility study showed strong support for a north Peoria location, so we are focusing on the Pioneer Park area for now. Eventually, we would like to open a second, smaller location in the Bradley/West Peoria area.

What’s been the response from the community so far?
When we started the process, we had more than 40 people at each of two organizational meetings. We have raised money through memberships and a fundraiser. Right now, we have over 400 Facebook fans, and are gaining new members and volunteers all the time.

What are your plans for the rest of this year? In the long term?
We plan two major fundraisers before the end of the year, and feel that it is possible to open the store in the late spring or early summer of 2014.

Anything else you’d like to add?
We welcome new members and volunteers to help make the Peoria Harvest Co-Op a reality. We have a complete business plan for review to show members who would potentially like to make a member loan to the co-op. Our website is You can also find us on Facebook. iBi