The Coopera, an organic-agriculture, financial-services, and social-support cooperative based in San Joaquin, a village on the western outskirts of Cuenca, was established in January 2004 by eight founding members with a total investment of less than $50 (each contributed $6). Today, it has more than 60,000 members and assets of nearly $30 million.
The Coopera owns and operates an organic farm and buys organic produce from local farmers. In 2007, the coop merged with another agricultural cooperative in Guayas province that serves Guayaquil; the merger allowed each to complement the other’s production and distribution chains.
According to the Cuenca Chamber of Commerce, the Coopera accounts for 10% of Cuenca’s consumer produce consumption; according to the Coopera, 50% of its organic produce is sold to local restaurants.
The coop’s main store in Cuenca is located on Calle Ricardo Darquea, which is, essentially, the extension of Avenida 12 de Abril west of Avenida de las Americas; the store is a half-block west of las Americas. It’s clean, brightly lit, well-organized, and easy to shop at. The prices for mostly organic produce (all the vegetables are organic, though some of the fruits aren’t) are generally as low as those at the indigenous produce markets, though at the Coopera, you get to pick out your own produce.
Everything actually has two prices: socio and publico (member and non-member) and they usually differ by a few cents. It’s easy to join. Just fill out a short form, pay $15 ($10 is for membership in the Coopera, the other $5 establishes your savings account), and get your membership folder. Show it to the cashier upon checkout to receive the discounts.
The produce lines the aisles. This is the core of the store, and the rows and rows of fresh organic produce are a sight to behold: everything from ajo (garlic) to zanahoria (carrots), from babaco to zuquini.
The coop also sells milk, cheese, and yogurt in refrigerated display cases as you walk in; organic meat and fish in refrigerated cases near the check-out area; fresh chicken and some delicious packaged polloahumado(smoked) and trucha (trout); eggs; bulk lima beans, peas, different kinds of corn; sardines and tuna in cans, olives, sausage, and oils; and other prepared and packaged foods, such as tortainglesa(cake), tiny empanadas con queso, pasta de ajo (garlic paste), and chopped veggies for chop suey, that you’ll find along the side and back walls.
Checking out is as easy as in any modern supermarket, with cashiers and baggers at the ready. Taxis, both yellow and unmarked (but perfectly safe), often wait outside to get you and your produce home.
Credit: Reposted from the Miami Herald International Edition, Oct. 5 2011; Photo caption: The produce section at one of the Coopera stores in Cuenca.