August 2011, by Britta Gustafson (CC BY-SA)

The Isla Vista Food Co-op was founded over 40 years ago, and remains the only community owned grocery store in Santa Barbara County. The Co-op is open to the public and was built to ensure that the community had access to affordable high quality food, and that local farmers would have a place to sell their produce. The mission statement of the Isla Vista Food Co-op is as follows:

Our mission, as a natural and organic foods consumer cooperative, is to provide the residents of Isla Vista and neighboring communities of Santa Barbara with reasonably priced foods, products and services that promote a healthier lifestyle and environment. Our predominantly local and in-season produce department provides critical financial support to farmers who are members of the Santa Barbara community. The result is that we get the freshest and most delicious produce available, and we help break a link in the corporate food chain.”

What is a co-op?

February 2015, by Britta Gustafson (CC BY-SA)A Co-op is a system where shoppers themselves own and control the store. “Co-op” stands for the word cooperative. As an owner, you are able to help decide how the Co-op should serve the community. Instead of having a CEO overseeing the entire company, the co-op utilizes a democratic voting system to choose a board of directors that steer strategic priorities, and hire the General Manager that oversees all operations.  The Board is not connected to the store's operations, but is ultimately responsible to ensure sound fiscal practices and a strong strategic position in the community.   Owners annually vote for a board of directors to represent them. To become a member, you must invest in the co-op, and will then own a share of the store, gaining financial benefits in-store and your voice and vote around the Board table. The Isla Vista Food Co-op is currently owned by over 1,500 active owners in the community, and around 8,000 total through its 46 year history. As cooperative grocery stores exist solely to serve the community they are in,  any profit that the Co-op generates is put it back back into the community through outreach, education, donations, free events, owner benefits, community partnerships as well as physical store improvements and ensuring staff are paid fair wages. If Co-ops are generating enough profit, they can also choose to give some profit back to owners in the form of dividends.

Why shop at a co-op?

May 2006, by Rockero (public domain)Co-ops exist to bring a community together to accomplish tasks that cannot be done alone. The main purpose of a co-op is to give back to the community with the profits that they receive. This means that if you are shopping at a local co-op, you are helping invest in the community. In fact, many coops do not make a profit due to the continual investments in their communities. Co-ops make use of their “profits” by hosting informative, helpful, and fun events for the whole community, paying their employees a fair wage, forming community partnerships, educating the community about food issues, physical store improvements, and selling goods in store that are beneficial to the community and the environment. Some of these events at the Isla Vista Food Coop range from tastings, tours, and workshops. Examples include hot sauce tastings and beach brunch yoga classes. Events hosted by the co-op can usually be found on Facebook. When community members choose to increase their participation in a cooperative business system (like shopping more), the more they directly benefit from that system and additionally generate more benefits for the community as a whole.

The Isla Vista Food Co-op also offers access to products using CalFresh, California’s version of Food Stamps. A CalFresh advocate is in the store every Tuesday and Thursday from 6:30-8:30 pm. CalFresh is available to students who receive financial aid and meet one of the following requirements: have work study, work over 20 hours per week, or are an EOP student. CalFresh can provide up to $194 per month in food assistance from the government. 

Becoming an Owner 

Ultimately, the main benefit of owning a Co-op is that it gives back to the community and the equity you contribute is used to ensure the Co-op's consistent strong financial position. Your equity is your voice and your vote, and Co-op Owners are asked to attend the Annual Owner Meeting as well to participate in annual Board of Directors elections.  There are other benefits of ownership that are directly tied to shopping in our grocery store.  

How IV Food Co-op gets their products

The Isla Vista Food Co-op chooses the items sold in store based on the needs and demands of its shoppers, which are constantly changing. Shoppers are welcome to let staff know of anything they would like to see in store by filling out a request form. The IV Food Co-op is part of the National Co-op Grocers (NCG), a co-op for co-ops. The NCG allows the IV Food Co-op to purchase items at a lower cost than they would if they had to deal directly with food companies. The NCG negotiates with these companies the way a large grocery chain would in order to ensure affordable prices for small co-ops around the country.


March 2011, by lunita lu (CC BY-NC)The Isla Vista Food Co-op offers affordable and accessible food that is healthy for both shoppers and the environment. They work with local farmers that focus on sustainability to ensure the best, most fresh and in season produce is offered in store. All of the produce offered is organic or unsprayed, and comes only in season. This is to ensure the health and safety of farmers, the environment, and the community. 95% of the chocolate, and all coffee and bananas sold in store have a fair trade certification in order to make a larger environmental and social justice impact. They also offer many tea and sugar options with fair trade partners. Animal products sold in store are organic, grass-fed, hormone-free, and local whenever possible. The IV Food Co-op also collects all food waste to be composted and used by Santa Barbara’s Open Alternative Schools and by Fairview Gardens. Before sending anything to the compost bin, food that cannot or will not be sold is offered to staff for free in order to reduce food waste. The IV Food Co-op also carries over 700 bulk items in store, allowing shoppers to purchase as much or as little as they need. Shoppers are also encouraged to bring their own container to reduce plastic waste, and shoppers will not be charged for the weight of their container.

Last year, the Co-op was able to raise over $59,000 in order to install solar panels on the roof of the Co-op. Since May 17th, 2017, the solar panels supply more than ⅓ of the Co-ops power, keeping over 1.3 million pounds of carbon emissions out of the atmosphere. Isla Vista Food Co-op is one of the first solar powered grocery stores in the county of Santa Barbara.

The Co-op has also adopted the HowGood rating system. This system allows labeling of every item in store to show shoppers how the products they buy impact the environment. The rating system consists of three tiers. A ‘Good” rating means the product is more sustainable than 75% of food produced in the U.S. A “great” rating means the products is more sustainable than 85% of food, and a “best” rating is better than 95% of all food produced in the U.S. Some products carried in store are labeled with “does not meet standards,” which lets shoppers know that the product they might buy is more harmful to the environment. For more information on the HowGood system, visit the Isla Vista Food Co-op website. 

Coop Basics

Co-op Basics is an in-store access program to educate shoppers on healthy staples that come at affordable prices. The program consists of over 200 items, and helps shoppers find affordable, healthy options across all areas of the store. Most items in the program come from the Field Day brand, which is mainly organic and non-GMO, allowing shoppers to eat healthier foods at lower costs. These products are more affordable because the National Co-op Grocers negotiated better prices for co-ops across the country to sell these products. The majority of items in the program also receive a rating of at least “good” in the HowGood system. The program flier can be found on the Isla Vista food Co-op website or in store.