On Sunday, February 8th, I met with Michelle Franklin, Cirrelda Snider-Bryan and Martha Whitman to discuss the history of one of the first food cooperatives in Albuquerque – Ochá – and how it laid the foundation for movements and programs that exist today.
In 1970 the Ochá food cooperative was started on a five acre lot that ran from Second Street to Fourth Street in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Through the collaboration of many, Ochá supplied those living north of Albuquerque, including Rio Rancho, Jemez Springs, and Bernalillo with bulk foods and fresh produce. There is no current online record of Ochá ever really existing — Google searches turn up very little. Its history should be an important tool and piece of inspiration for those looking to start co-ops or increase the potential of those already in existence. I learned about it through my mother, Cirrelda Snider-Bryan, who worked within and for the cooperative from 1980-1984. My mother met Martha Whitman and Michelle Franklin while working at Ochá.The information that I gathered is critical for understanding what we have lost and gained since the demise of Ochá and what growth is possible for today’s community.
The store was first housed in a UNM professor’s front yard in the Summer of 1970. Later that year a junk yard on North Fourth Street was leased. The land was in disrepair and served as a dumping site for old machinery, metal, and wood scraps. Later, in 1980 founding co-op members cut a deal to clean up the land and use it for various purposes. These included dwellings on site that were “slapped together” from found materials. The presence of people living on site eventually lead to food that was grown and processed on site. There was a mill to process grains into flour and a one acre garden, the “Ajo Garden Co-op,” that members were able to harvest from and sell at the Downtown Grower’s Market, which at the time took place on the civic plaza.
Though it would have been wonderful for the co-op to sell produce and product made directly on the North Valley land, food had to come from elsewhere in larger quantities in order for the co-op to serve a wider community. The Tucson Cooperative Warehouse (TCW) delivered the bulk of Ochá’s supply, in addition to the supplies of many co-ops and buying clubs across the Southwest. They operated on a cooperative basis, giving large co-op stores like Ochá with a member base of 2,000 the same buying power as small buying clubs of 20-40 members. This worked for the co-op systems until other competitors came on the scene.
The late 70s and early 80s were a time of rapid growth for alternative food sources. In John Curl’s For The People, The Cooperative League gave an estimate in 1979 that there were “between 5,000 and 10,000 small ‘new wave’ food co-ops of various structures [that had] formed in the past decade, and several thousand [that were] probably still functioning with a $500 million annual volume.” This meant there was a larger demand for natural food products and warehouses like TCW could no longer compete with larger distributors and grocers. Whole Foods and the many conventional groceries started carrying natural foods to compete. This meant that co-ops and buying clubs were no longer the singular importers and carriers of these “specialty” food items. Large warehouses such as United Natural and the People’s Warehouse in California merged to become one entity. United Natural Foods Inc. is now the number one natural foods distributor in the country.
Ochá could not compete for this reason, plus other market and business related issues. Ochá operated in what Michelle Franklin calls a “laissez-faire” business plan. “We had gotten a register at that point” she jokes, alluding to the time when they operated through pure hand to hand transactions. Every record was kept in a hand-written log and orders to TCW were filled with money made within the time that the bank took to process checks. As technology progressed, Ochá was unable to keep up.
In 1984 Ochá had reached the end of its almost fifteen year life. At this point, La Montanita Food Co-op, which had begun in 1976, was growing at its location on Central and Girard. Ochá drew up a deal with the Nob Hill location to switch Ochá members over to La Montanita, allowing the newer co-op to grow in size and demographics. The five acre plot was given to the New Mexico Community Foundation where it was sold to new owners. In its demise, Ochá was able to create growth in other parts of the Albuquerque co-op community. Michelle Franklin is now the manager of the Co-op Distribution Center, which has opened up the flow of food in and out of New Mexico. Martha Whitman has been both the Vice President and President of the La Montanita Co-op board. Cirrelda now operates the Kiwanis Learning Garden, through the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, that continues the same communal energy around food that Ochá once had. The soul of Ochá was in those who put the time and effort in to make something beautiful. I see that energy around today and I have faith that something new could come out of that energy in the future.
-Posted by CB