Written by Andi Agnew | Photographed by Frank Farmer

I meet Patrick Jerome, Outreach Coordinator for Rainbow Co-Operative, at High Noon, the vegetarian/vegan cafe adjacent to the grocery store. It’s Mexican day, and that means I get to have the nacho salad. Jerome has to pause our interview a couple of times to go assist customers or take photos of produce for the social media posts of the day. This gives me a chance to devour my salad, so I don’t complain.

“So, what is a Co-Op?” I ask. Jerome breaks it down this way: “There’s lots of types of co-ops… we are a consumer co-op; member-owned. We are owned by the members that purchase shares — kind of like a conventional company, but every person can only buy one share. Whenever there are windfall profits, we split them amongst the shareholders; unlike in other companies, the shareholders get to make decisions on the composition of the board of directors, long-term goals of the company, things like that.”

Rainbow has been in Fondren for about 25 years, providing a constant in a rapidly growing and changing neighborhood. “We’ve been doing a lot of the things people think of as new, like local foods, making everything in-store — we’ve been doing it for so long, I don’t think people realize we are doing it,” Jerome says.

He acknowledges that the idea of what is considered “healthy” has evolved over the years. Rainbow’s ethos has evolved a bit, too. It was strictly a vegan operation for years, and then the Co-Op slowly introduced dairy and organic meat products over the years.

No matter what the latest trends are in healthy eating, Rainbow maintains some basic rules that ensure customers are getting quality grocery items for competitive prices.

“We have fairly strict purchasing standards. We try to make sure all the produce is organic and/or local, and the same goes for our dairy and meat departments. We are adamant about no high fructose corn syrup. We don’t work with companies that we consider to have unethical standards — big corporations like Coca-Cola, for example. We also try not to work with their subsidiaries, which is almost impossible sometimes. We’re also really big on being GMO-free; our customers feel that’s really important, so that’s one thing we avoid.”

Being trained and open to customers is also very important at Rainbow Co-Op. Need guidance based on dietary restrictions or doctor recommendations? Rainbow can help, Jerome says. “We put a premium on training the staff and making sure people are here to help. A lot of times people come in and they don’t know what they want, or they heard about something from a friend.  It’s really important, particularly in supplements, for example, where getting the wrong thing could make you sick. We’ve always got someone here who can answer your questions,” Jerome says.

You don’t have to be a member to shop at Rainbow Co-Op, but as they say, membership has its advantages. There are two types of memberships. Individual annual membership costs $25 and family annual membership costs $40 are now free and will get you “some pretty sweet discounts,” according to Jerome. Senior citizens, college students and public service members have always received free membership.

The second type of membership is the member/owner. “Seventy-five dollars and they’re in for life. These members get the same discounts as the annual members do, except on member days they get 20% off instead of 10%,” Jerome says. “There’s member staples — staple foods like rice, beans, orange juice – those will always have the same low price. We’ve maintained the same price for years even though the cost of groceries have gone up. We are very sensitive to the fact that not everyone in our neighborhood has a lot of money to spend on groceries, so we keep our prices much lower than our competition on comparable products. It’s part of our mission statement, to provide food that the community can afford.”

Originally published December 2015 and edited to reflect the new membership structure.