Bon appétit, y'all!
How a church choir master in Oklahoma staged a local food revolution.
Wed, Apr 08 2009 at 2:44 PM
Robert Waldrop is not your average food activist—in fact, he isn’t your average anything. A choir master who has taken a vow of poverty, Waldrop is just past 50 with long hair, a beard that reaches to his chest, and bushy eyebrows, making him resemble the Russian charismatic mystic Rasputin. And, similar to his likeness, he is able to capture the attention of diverse audiences—from labor unions to church services to Oklahoma ranchers’ associations. He captures their attention with the simple message that local farms can thrive if they are connected to local customers; he captures their attention because he has proven that those connections pay off.
Waldrop is the founder of the Oklahoma Food Cooperative (OFC), a monthly buying club that connects Oklahoma customers with Oklahoma farmers. The first month it existed, the cooperative generated $3,500 from 60 members. Fewer than four years later the April 2007 order stood at nearly $36,500. That’s a lot of local food and a lot of money in farmers’ pockets, and OFC board members expect that number to nearly double by the end of the year.
The cooperative was born out of Waldrop’s own attempts to buy locally. He founded the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House, a lay religious community based on social justice and hospitality to the poor. Waldrop began to try to supply all of his house’s food from local farmers. He bought meat directly from sustainable ranches, and wheat berries (that he ground himself) from organic wheat farmers; he visited organic vegetable farms; he bought locally bottled spring water. But buying directly from farms was hard work, and gradually Waldrop realized that most people simply wouldn’t have time for it.
“I started going around and giving talks on my own experience of buying food from local farmers,” Waldrop said. “When I talked about it many people said, ‘Well that’s very interesting but not everyone’s going to drive all over the place to buy their food like you do.’ It’s true! So I began to think: if people want to do this, how can I make it easier? Out of that thought came the Oklahoma Food Cooperative.”
Founding the cooperative required many long Oklahoma drives. Waldrop traveled across Oklahoma talking to farmer groups and environmental clubs, preaching the gospel of local food and looking for a core group from which he could build a cooperative. After months of talking and e-mailing, he had a group of people, some wearing cowboy hats and others Birkenstocks, who were ready to get the cooperative started. They designed a system through which farmers listed the products they had to sell each month, and customers could then order those products through an online system. On a designated delivery day, the farmers would bring in what customers had ordered, and the customers would come to pick up their goods. It was, like most good ideas, simple, and once the system was in place the customers and suppliers were ready to take part.
The OFC began in November 2003 with the monthly deliveries based out of the aptly named Church of the Epiphany, a Roman Catholic church in Oklahoma City where Waldrop serves as music director, but it has since outgrown the church and moved to the Oklahoma City Farmers’ Market. Trailer loads of meat, produce, homemade soap, local water, and home canned goods travel into the makeshift distribution center in the morning. While Oklahoma City residents pick up their orders at the farmers’ market, customers in other cities rely on volunteers, who assemble the orders and transport them to a few pick-up hubs.
The system is still evolving, but it is growing rapidly. From the 60 original members, the coop now has over a thousand, and they continue to add hundreds of members each month. Much of this growth comes from the paradoxical marketing genius of Waldrop, who leans more toward the socialism than capitalism—he will do just about anything to spread the word about Oklahoma food and the coop. In 2005 he even ran for mayor of Oklahoma City on a local food agenda to give the coop more visibility.
Groups from other states have taken notice of Oklahoma’s burgeoning local foods movement, and some have begun working with Waldrop to adopt the OFC’s system. Waldrop gladly travels wherever he needs to, from Torino, Italy to Oppelo, Arkansas to tell the Oklahoma local food story in his musical twang. It’s the sort of message that makes one hope that more people will join Waldrop in saying, “Y’all bon appétit!”
Story by Ragan Sutterfield. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in May 2007.
Copyright Environ Press 2007
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