Chequamegon Food Co-op has installed plexiglass barriers to help keep their cashiers protected from exposure to the coronavirus.

Local food cooperatives in Wisconsin are implementing ways for both customers and employees to stay safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic, while also trying to ensure that communities have access to the food they need and local producers have access to the outlets they rely on to sell their goods. 

"Being a small store, we can focus even more on our mission to be central to a thriving healthy community during this," said Becca Schoenborn, outreach and education coordinator for Menomonie Market Food Co-op. 

Kiana Abel, marketing manager for Chequamegon Food Co-op, said they hoped that the community will be able to survive any economic downturn that might come about as a result of the pandemic and that the co-op would be able to continue providing service to everyone no matter what the situation is. 

"Our roots run really deep," Abel said, noting that it's the customers and members who keep the co-op positive, excited and of course, open. 

Continuing to provide services for shoppers means that co-ops, like many other essential businesses that remain open, are left to devise and carry out ideas — while following state and federal guidelines — that make the process of providing for the community as safe as possible. 

Menomonie Market and Chequamegon Food Co-op, which, like many co-ops, have posted updates to their operating procedures on their website and social media, have taken several steps to reduce risk for its shoppers and employees. 

"We've been able to implement quick changes to keep our store safe for staff and shoppers while still being the friendly faces our community has come to know," Schoenborn said. 

For those in-store, signage and markers are in place to promote social distancing, and cashiers are being protected by a plexiglass barrier. Chequamegon Food Co-op has instituted a designated time for at-risk shoppers to be in-store, Abel said. 

Those who prefer not to or have reasons that they cannot go inside can take advantage of the markets' online orders for curbside pick up.

For locals who have been self-isolating, the option to finally get fresh vegetables through curbside pick up can be exciting, Abel said. 

The stores have also limited their hours and deli/takeout offerings and started multiple other initiatives to both thank their staff and keep them safe.

Cooperatives across the state are implementing similar measures to keep the store clean and sanitary as well their staff and shoppers safe. Co-ops are also working to follow the guidelines established by the CDC and other organizations. 

In addition to keeping those who visit safe, co-ops are also looking to keep the supplies and goods customers are looking for in stock. The local nature of these co-ops is coming can be handy for many co-ops for that reason. 

"The closer your supply chain, the more stable your situation in any circumstance," Abel said. 

While many grocery stores have had some difficulty keeping certain products in stock, co-ops are able to credit their relationships with local farmers and producers for the co-ops' ability to continue providing what their shoppers are searching for. 

Those relationships have "truly been the difference between stocked shelves and empty shelves," Schoenborn said. 

For example, while other stores have experienced shortages of ground beef and eggs, Schoenborn said, quick calls to two farms within 40 miles of the market had bonus deliveries of free-range eggs and grass-fed beef come in. 

Produce can be a little harder to come by at this time of year, Abel said, outside of producers who grow in high tunnels or stockpile items like onions to distribute later, but a local producer has been able to keep their co-op in greens.

Chequamegon Food Co-op's microloan program is designed to help local producers — within about 100 miles of the co-op — get going, Abel said. Those producers can in turn be better situated to help increase the availability of local products and make the local supply chain stronger. 

Schoenborn said, "We're feeling really fortunate to work with small-scale, local farmers and producers for many of our products because we haven't had those issues (that conventional grocers have experienced) and have been able to support them even more in these past weeks."