The History of the Ochá Food Co-Op

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.

Photo of the author (CB), Michelle Franklin, Sean-Paul VonAncken, and Martha Whitman - taken by Cirrelda Snider-Bryan

The author (CB), Michelle Franklin, Sean-Paul VonAncken, and Martha Whitman – Photo by Cirrelda Snider-Bryan

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.

Photo of storefront by Jeffrey Finer, via Cirrelda Snider-Bryan archive

The storefront – Photo by Jeffrey Finer, via Cirrelda Snider-Bryan archive

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.

View of original junkyard - photo by Jeffrey Finer

View of original junkyard – Photo by Jeffrey Finer

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.

Inside the co-op, photo by Jeffrey Finer

Inside the co-op – Photo by Jeffrey Finer

Unloading the TCW truck and palettes stacked against back of building - photo by Jeffrey Finer

Unloading the TCW truck and pallets stacked against back of building – Photo by Jeffrey Finer

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.

Michelle Franklin stocking produce - Photo courtesy of Cirrelda Snider-Bryan

Michelle Franklin stocking produce – Photo courtesy of Cirrelda Snider-Bryan

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.

Ochá staff circa 1982 - Photo by Greg Johnston

Ochá staff circa 1982 – Photo by Greg Johnston

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

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10 Responses to The History of the Ochá Food Co-Op

  1. C.C. says:

    Really important document – thanks for doing it!

  2. C.C. says:

    In the last staff photo – top row left to right: Cirrelda Snider, Ross Edwards, Michele Thompson, Diana Stetson, Dan Schaller, Michael Copley; bottom row left to right: Shirley, Michelle Franklin, Ethan Frazin (in lap), Martha (Mancuso) Whitman, Nancy Hockstad.

  3. C.C. says:

    Also want to say that when I worked at Ochá (1981-84) we did have cash registers, even programmed with PLU#s in later years for all the various bulk products. Michelle’s comment referring to getting a cash register referred to mid-seventies time frame.

    It would be so great if others with Ochá memories could chime in and share what they remember!!

  4. I have SO MANY memories from Ocha! Helping pack and label raisins, the yogurt and frozen orange juice popsicles made in little paper cups, the smell of the herb room, the free box around back, the big fundraising event with belly dancers, mimes, and live music–including the guy who wrote a song for Ocha (before the S was changed to a C) and thought he was at a fundraiser for the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration (so naturally the words didn’t make any sense for the occasion or the organization), gluten bread (yes, it was actually called gluten bread and it was my favorite for cheese sandwiches), Pelican Punch. I remember being so impressed that my mom was an important member of the team.
    It was always an adventure when it was my mom’s day to volunteer and usually all 5 of us kids would come along–the older ones could help with the tasks, or at the very least, help with the littler ones so my mom, Melinda, could do her work. I felt important and privileged to be useful, and to be able to go into the back area (where the popsicles were kept)!
    So wonderful to bring back so many memories. Thanks, CB, for this wonderful write up and for all the memories!

  5. Nancy Hockstad says:

    This is a great retrospective of Ocha Coop. Ocha was an important part of alternative Albuquerque back in the day. It took a really dedicated membership to address all of the challenges we faced and finally achieve some success. I especially want to acknowledge Jalal Greene who came in as manager near the end. His fresh eyes and ideas helped make us a fairly sophisticated little coop by the time we closed. And Michelle Franklin created a produce department that was way ahead of its time. Great research and writing, C.B.

    Nancy Hockstad
    Staff, 1982-84

  6. marcia says:

    Thanks for remembering the yogurt popsicles. I made them! Good friends and I lived there in the early 70’s, yes, while it was still OSHA. We did get a lot of calls about safety regulations.

  7. tracyhodgeman says:

    Oh my god those popsicles! I used to eat them until my tongue bled. Literally. I also remember going around chewing on a licorice stick and feeling quite pleased with myself, imagining people assuming I was just chewing on a regular stick and wondering who this strange little girl might be. I stayed at Ocha (then Osha) briefly in 1975 when I was 10. I loved getting to help in the store. I was there with my mom Feather and stepdad Jaysun and we stayed at a woman called Sasha’s house. My mother gave birth to my little brother Shawn while we were there (at the hospital). I remember gathering together with the other kids under a tree to listen to this wonderful young man read to us from a hammock out of The Hobbit everyday. He gave each character a different voice. He was brilliant. I also remember that someone had written on a wall “He who lives outside the law must be honest.” Dylan. Or something like that. I’ve pondered it ever since. Wonderful place. Thank you for writing this.

  8. OSHA was a part of my childhood from the very beginning. I was about 2 when my mother got involved with OSHA in 70 or 71. We were pol/eco hippies and the Whole/Organic Foods and related sustainable living life style was all I really knew. A trip to OSHA meant I would run into kids I “knew”, and while I probably wouldn’t play much with them (there were some out&out hellions running around there, lol) It was still cool to see people I knew, as we were a little reclusive as a family unit. I would usually get drafted to help with whatever project was ongoing, which meant I was allowed (by mom) to partake in whatever goodies had been earned. Once free… I would always go to the herb and bulk area, to see and smell the familiar and sometimes, the newly exotic. I earned a little enmity when I convinced a couple kids who were tearing the place up that Golden Seal was much like Cinnamon, only better!
    If there was nothing exciting going on, I would try to catch a worker who was willing to talk and we would share views on whatever came to mind. I didn’t have much contact with kids, so for me OSHA was one of the better social events of my childhood.
    I have not lived in the area since the mid 1980’s, and I don’t miss much about Albuquerque outside of my memories. I have fine and fond memories OSHA, and it’s “People”, of whom I was one.

  9. rg Steinman says:

    Hi…I lived there, same time as Marcia, from 1971-1976. At that time, it was Osha food Coop. We had a free store where folks could drop off and pick up clothes, etc. We had compost piles, gardens, a bakery (Boogie Bakery) in the back house, made yogurt for sale in the store, and, of course, Marcia’s orange juice yogurt Popsicles. About 15 or so of us lived in various “homes” on the property [are any of you reading this – Irene (Sasha), Naomi (Blue), Spar, Adela and her 3 boys, Jeff, Sonny and her daughter Willow, Jim, and others, some of whom are no longer with us – John, Joe -RIP]. Those were Good Times! Still living this life in a Good Way. ~ rg

  10. Phil Vier says:

    Great to read some of what others have shared here of their memories of Osha/Ocha. I volunteered at Osha back in the early 1970’s while attending UNM and living in Albuquerque. I worked mainly in the herb room re-filling the large glass jars. I can’t honestly remember some of the people’s names I worked with, but there was always a positive energy there. I was just getting into yoga then, and also singing with two wonderful musicians who were born and raised in Albuquerque. Those were some of the most wonderful times (so far) in my life! Thanks for making it possible for me to just say “hello” here!! Phil Vier

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