NEW LONDON — For the past 15 years, New London has been without a grocery store. Residents had to drive to neighboring communities, sometimes up to 30 minutes away, just to get fresh groceries.
“Keeping people in New London and the surrounding community is really important. In order to do that, we need to get access to a grocery store,” said Eric Hatlestad, president of the New London Food Cooperative. “Residents having to drive to Spicer, Willmar or further afield is certainly a barrier to affordable food , especially for the elderly.”
After five years of planning, the New London Food Co-op is slated to open this fall, with construction wrapping up by late summer.
To provide the community with more direct access to staple foods, Hatlestad and other community members decided it was time to build a new place for people to shop locally for groceries.
“Eric Hatlestad started the venture to create a food co-op because New London doesn’t have a grocery store. A small-scale grocery store like this is difficult,” said Sara Swedburg, secretary of the co-op.
When the group set out to create a new grocery store, they wanted it to be part of the community. To do this, they decided to make it municipally owned and run as a cooperative.
“Ownership and exploitation that depend on one person or family can be unsustainable. By getting everyone involved and getting people involved in owning and running the store, it gives it a chance to succeed. It gives people the chance to have a voice in the food system, the economy and the community,” Hatlestad said.
The co-op was first raised in 2018. At a meeting in February, the board decided to test community interest with an open meeting. More than 100 people attended the meeting to express their support, concern and ask questions.
The cooperative now has more than 180 members.
Plans have been progressing ever since. According to Hatlestad, the pandemic slowed down the process but could not stop it. Another problem the cooperative faced was finding a location.
“We went through many iterations of the project. There were a number of potential building sites, but we had to rethink how we planned to finance the store. It was quite a difficult process,” Hatlestad said.
When a traditional business seeks financing, banks are able to have a specific person to whom they can provide finance and collect from if the business goes bankrupt. Co-ops don’t have a single owner, so it can be more difficult to find start-up funds.
“Banks want a separate person, so if that fails, ‘Where am I going to get my money?’ We don’t own a building — we rent — so it gives less collateral for a bank,” Swedburg said. “We’re really fortunate to have worked with some really key partners to put everything in place. That was our biggest hurdle to jump over.”
The construction is managed by members of the cooperative.
“Things like plumbing and electricity we had to hire, but we had a great group of volunteers,” Swedburg said. “The construction crew was helping out with a lot of framing and drywall. Several of our board members are carpenters by day, so it was really nice to have their leadership and expertise.”
When the co-op opens, the plan is to focus on local foods. Even though they can’t sell homemade food—food that’s home-cooked—the idea is to stay local. The store’s policy will be to buy from manufacturers within a 100 mile radius for the majority of its inventory.
“We’re lucky to have a lot of really great farmers already practicing sustainable agriculture in the area, and many more in the future,” Hatlestad said. “We can’t grow everything in the area; we’ll have a few other suppliers we’ll be working with as well.”
The Co-op Council hopes that by giving New Londoners direct access to fresh, local and sustainable food, they can help not only keep people in the city, but also welcome new people to New London.
For more information and updates visit newlondonfood.coop.
Levi Jones is a business reporter for the West Central Tribune. After growing up in the Twin Cities, Jones attended Hamline University for journalism and media communications. After graduating in 2020, Jones worked as a reporter, covering everything from sports to politics.