Of all the differences between a traditional grocery store and the Breadroot Natural Foods Co-op, perhaps the most pleasant is the way the children behave.

The place is crawling with the children of volunteers and customers: babies nursing in slings, curious toddlers, older kids chasing each other out back and into the dedicated play room. But none are having a meltdown, or begging for a toy.

It’s a byproduct of the sense of freedom and community that has developed at Breadroot, now in its 10th year.

The 130 Main St. store offers natural foods and household supplies to the general public and to members, who get a 5 percent discount for a $20 annual membership fee, which also buys shares of stock in the co-op and comes with voting privileges.

The store has a seven-member board of directors and just three paid staff, but no one person is in charge.

“We don’t have a boss telling us what to do,” said Karen Buxcel, board member and volunteer.

Most of the work is done by volunteers, who trade a minimum of one five-hour shift per week for a 25 percent discount on purchases.

Many volunteer for several shifts, Buxcel said, and spending time at the co-op becomes a way of life.

“It’s a community here,” she said. “We really love to be here.”

The co-op was started in January 2001 by Michael Melius, who had been a member of a buying club, where people went in together every so often on bulk orders. Melius said he talked to other co-op managers in the region, who were surprised to hear of a new co-op opening at that time, since many were started in the 1970s. But Melius said he envisioned the ways the co-op could combine storefront convenience with the new buying-club power the Internet would provide.

Today, co-op members can order in bulk online and pick up their shipments weekly at the store. Like before, they can split an order with another member, or with the store itself, which will sell the rest on its shelves.

In its fourth location since it began, Breadroot now has more than 1,400 members and orders more than $6,000 of food a week, and is still growing. That’s because of its increased visibility on Main Street, word of mouth and increased attention to healthful eating, members say.

Things haven’t always gone so well. For a time, the co-op was disorganized and in debt, board members said. But now with paid staff taking care of the finances and ordering and organizing the volunteers, things run smoothly, they said.

One long-term goal of the board is to build the store’s own “green” building, instead of renting, but for now, they’re putting any extra money back into improving the current store.

Volunteers over the winter installed a big new commercial-grade refrigerator and freezer, replacing a wall of white refrigerators like the one in your home kitchen. Volunteers also recently built custom wood shelves to hold bulk containers of teas and spices.

Another small-but-meaningful change is the addition of new plastic bulk-food dispensers, which look like something you’d see at Whole Foods, replacing old, cracked bins.

“We have never been about appearances,” Karen Buxcel said.

The priorities here are providing access to natural foods at a fair price, making healthy eating available to as many people as possible, she said, and providing locally grown food whenever possible. The co-op’s REACH program makes certain “vital foods” available at cost, including apples, grapefruit, lettuce, kale, sweet potatoes, rolled oats, rice and beans.

The paid staff, such as business manager Mary Anderson, were all volunteers first, which helps because they share the devotion to natural foods and the sense of community.

Anderson shopped at the co-op before starting to volunteer. “I thought, ‘They have been serving me for a year, and I want to serve them,’” she said.

That model seems to work for Breadroot.

“Everyone is doing what they can do,” Anderson said, “and it’s based on trust and freedom.”

Contact Barbara Soderlin at 394-8417 or barbara.soderlin@rapidcityjournal.com

About Breadroot

Location: 130 Main St., Rapid City

Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Thursday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday

Stock: Produce, dairy, meat, bulk foods, pantry staples, household cleaners and personal hygiene products

For more information: Go to http://www.breadroot.com">www.breadroot.com or call 348-3331

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