Melissa Cohen still has the receipts from early March, back when Ava Churchill, the Isla Vista Food Cooperative’s human resources manager, logged onto Amazon to swipe up any last remaining sanitizer. It took two months to arrive.
In that moment, overwhelmed by the impending hordes of panic buyers, Cohen and her staff knew they had to rally together to pull through the coronavirus pandemic in one piece — which included the preemptive ordering of sanitizer and the creation of new cleaning protocols.
As the general manager of the Isla Vista Food Co-op while also in the midst of a global pandemic, Cohen said she, and the rest of her staff, could feel the weight of the community on their backs.
Grocery stores are slim pickings in I.V.; community members without the means to transport a week’s worth of groceries have few places to turn when the fridge hollows out. For those who are stuck in quarantine, the struggle of food shopping only magnifies, Cohen said.
Faced with the puzzle of supplying community members with food while also keeping them safe amidst a pandemic, Cohen said the co-op sidestepped potential health hazards by doing the shopping for its customers through an online order system while working with food distributors to keep products on the shelves.
She described the last few months of keeping the co-op afloat as “a profound journey of dismantling, reestablishing, recalibrating, reinculturating, repurposing and recentering.”
“As much as Costco might’ve been easy or useful to deal with or Sprouts was a resource before, they’re not resources now. Corporate grocery could not help UCSB in [its] moment of need,” she continued. “I bet you don’t realize the power of having a community grocer right in your back pocket.”
One of the biggest advantages of running the co-op, as opposed to a corporate grocery store, is its lack of a corporate hierarchy, Cohen explained.
“The uniqueness of being a small business at this time is very powerful,” she said, referring to the co-op’s flexibility in rolling out new rules and policies instantly without the need for higher-up approval.
The co-op leveraged this advantage in March, when out-of-towners flocked to the store after wiping clean the nearby Costco and Sprouts, Cohen said. She immediately implemented mask-wearing policies and purchase limits to keep a lid on the panic buying.
“All of a sudden, the co-op was descended upon by non-students who are buying hundreds of dollars worth of stuff at one time when we’re used to, like, a $10, $15 shopping basket,” Cohen said.
“Overnight, the co-op was discovered as this off-the-beaten-path treasure as all these supermarkets have these crazy lines and people are freaking out, and then suddenly people are shopping at the co-op,” she explained.
Aside from the panic buying, Cohen said the loss of a third of her workforce — the part-time students who left I.V. to ride out the pandemic at home — was another symptom of the pandemic’s toll on the co-op. But her remaining staff, despite being “worked to the bone,” stepped up to meet the demand, she said; at its peak, sales at the co-op were up nearly 70%.
To offset the burden of working during the pandemic, Cohen said the co-op has been paying all employees hazard pay — including $2-per-hour raises and cash bonuses — since March.
In addition, the co-op’s new safety protocols include new rules for sick leave, a mask-wearing policy for workers and customers, cleaning guidelines and performing administrative work remotely, Cohen said.
Cohen also said she is grateful for the Davis Food Co-op, the I.V. Food co-op’s sister store up north, for sharing its pandemic response plan and giving the co-op an adaptable blueprint for future plans and protocols, and for Churchill, whose sanitizer orders sounded the alarm about the necessity of preparing the co-op for the pandemic.
Cohen said these efforts provided an added layer of security to the store by making customers and workers feel safe while inside the food co-op. But when it comes to the food supply chain, which is largely out of the hands of the co-op, some uncertainty still looms, according to Steve Snyder, the I.V. Food Co-op’s merchandising manager.
The bottom line, he said, is that the “food supply chain was robust until people lost their minds.”
By the third week of March, the panic buying was so intense that customers were buying items straight off the delivery truck before they even hit the shelves, Snyder said. This briefly forced the co-op to put in orders to its food distributors that were twice its normal size, he added.
“So the panic buying, the hoarding, the desperate desire to get it before your neighbor gets it — that’s what broke the food supply chain. When [they] recommended that people remain calm, that is what we all should have done,” Snyder said.
“There would be toilet paper on shelves if every person in North America, who could get four cases of 96-count toilet paper, didn’t go out and do that and build a fort in their garage,” he added.
Snyder said there are currently a variety of holes in Southern California’s food supply chain, which is one of the largest and most impacted grocery regions in the U.S. Some of these gaps are reflected directly on the co-op’s shelves, where products such as rice, pasta, soup, toilet paper, bottled water and frozen fruits are either slowly returning in quantity or still out of stock.
Because the food co-op is connected directly to growers around the state, Snyder said the quantity of some items, mainly produce, is not a concern. But when it comes to sourcing products from manufacturers and vendors — adding more layers to the supply chain — availability becomes more of an issue, Snyder said.
Some warehouses used by manufacturers and vendors to store products have bled dry from panic buying, Snyder said. This means that “they’ve either sold through everything and they have to wait for the 2020 harvest to begin reproducing for staples … or they haven’t sold through everything but they’re allotting shipments to specific warehouses to make sure that everybody gets a chance,” he explained.
Judging from his experiences during the coronavirus pandemic, Snyder said he’d down boil what he learned into two takeaways for the future: “Try to figure out how to not get caught off guard” and “put quantity limits in place sooner.”
“I just wish that people would recognize that everyone should have access to food. And you’re not helping anyone, including yourself, if you’re buying a year’s or more supply of stuff,” he said. “That’s going to sit in your garage and eventually go stale, and then you’re going to send it to the landfill.”
For Cohen, the pandemic may have been full of learning experiences, but it was also a catalyst for growth. She recalled being wary of starting Co-op Curbside, the co-op’s grocery delivery service, but grew to appreciate the convenience — and necessity — of having such a service after seeing how it unified community members during a time of need. Now, she says, the co-op has immortalized the service and she can’t see the store without it.
“I always had said, ‘I think doing home delivery is ridiculous. The co-op is place-based and people need to come to the store; it’s about the experience,’” she said. “And, of course, I’ve been proven wrong.”
The same can also be said for hazard pay, Cohen said. Now, $15 per hour is the new normal.
Looking back at the strenuous months of March, April and May, Cohen said the pandemic has been a bumpy road for the co-op, in part because the store lost some of its identity in the process.
For a place that prides itself on helping customers “feel safe and be seen,” Cohen said closing down the outdoor patio, canceling upcoming workshops and rolling out safety protocols made it all the more difficult to do that.
But through it all, the community response has been “incredible,” Cohen said, pointing to moments of appreciation from new and long-term customers who saw the value in the co-op’s grocery delivery service and cleaning protocols and found comfort knowing that there would always be food on the shelves.
And for a small business with a generational stake in I.V. and a community of fervent supporters, Cohen is confident that the “new normal” will make the co-op stronger than ever.
“If you haven’t lived and loved Isla Vista and gone through your part of your life here, you will never know the magnitude of this community,” she said. “One of Isla Vista’s most magnificent attributes is that it is a community that is resilient and inspired. And every time we turn to the next calendar cycle, it’s a blank canvas — an opportunity for the next generation to show that.”
“For us to get to be a part of this iteration of Isla Vista and feel like we’re actually doing work that the community is benefiting from — to me, there’s nothing better,” she said.