By Henry Zimmerman, @hwzimmerman
Ames, Ia. – In 1974, a buying club was started at Iowa State University. The Mutual Aid Food Association, or MAFA, helped members to pool their resources, allowing them to make purchases at lower prices. It also helped the members purchase things that might otherwise be difficult to obtain for the average person. Six years after MAFA was formed, they established a brick and mortar location on Douglas Avenue, just off of Main Street in downtown Ames.
In the mid-1980s, they changed their name to Wheatsfield Grocery. A change meant to reflect their role as a part of the Ames community. They offered groceries and bulk food from that location for about 3 decades. Then, in 2006, Wheatsfield Grocery reincorporated as an official cooperative.
“With those roots as a buying association, when we changed over to become a cooperative it meant that we could actually have member owners even though there was already a sense of ownership amongst our shoppers. But, it meant a lot for us to adopt the cooperative principles, and also actually incorporate with the state of Iowa as a cooperative.” – Rachel Dakarian, President of Wheatsfield Cooperative’s Board of Directors
After becoming Wheatsfield Cooperative, they moved into a bigger location a few blocks down Main Street. The move was necessary for the progress of the coop, but remaining a part of Main Street was just as important.
“It meant a lot to stay on Main Street, and become a Main Street anchor, but it meant we actually had a parking lot, which we didn’t have before. And we could expand everything that we offered.” – Dakarian
In 2014, the Wheatsfield Board of Directors announced a plan to expand their infrastructure so that they could expand their offerings. The expansion was finished in early 2017, and it added about 5,000 square feet to the store itself and nearly tripled the size of the parking lot.
Inside the store, improvements and additions were made, like expanding their long-standing coffee program to include smoothies and juices. They also unveiled a new bread program, which offers breads like baguettes and sourdough, all made fresh on-site by their baker.
Another part of the recent expansion is the classroom area.
“We’ve always had classes, but we would host them in our deli seating area. And now it’s fantastic to have a space that just dedicated for classes. We’ve got a hanging mirror and full cook top so we’re able to have a full offering for our teachers, who happen to, you know all the amenities that they would want to be able to teach a cooking class, or, you know, maybe you’ve recently discovered you have a gluten allergy and you want to come and learn how to cook gluten free. We are also able to have, you know, more expanded beer and wine tastings in that room and then just classes that can be anything from gardening to knitting or some sort of fine art.” – Dakarian
In more ways than one, Wheatsfield Cooperative plays an active role as a part of the Ames community, whether they are offering classes, hosting local musicians or displaying the work of local artists. According to Dakarian, membership is pushing 6,000, which nearly a tenth of the population here in Ames. That means that the Ames community supports the cooperative almost as much as the cooperative supports them.