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RBC I When it comes to purchasing fresh produce for around one-third the grocery store cost, count Rangely and Meeker residents in.
That’s what the Bountiful Baskets Food Co-op brings to Rio Blanco County participants every other Saturday.
Two rows of white plastic laundry baskets, one for fruit and the other for vegetables, line the floors of Rangely’s Early Education Center and the old Meeker Elementary School. Volunteers arrive early to sort and distribute the produce, which ranges from common offerings like bananas and tomatoes to, occasionally, more exotic selections like Jerusalem artichokes and persimmons. People reserve their baskets online for $15 the previous Monday or Tuesday, then bring their own baskets or boxes to haul their, well, haul, home.
Longtime Rangely resident Beverly Byers learned about the co-op when her daughter told her about a Bountiful Baskets site in Vernal. Bev and husband Mark scrambled to sign up online every other Monday, since all of the 94 baskets were reserved within half an hour of the website’s opening.
Then, the following Saturday, they would head to Vernal to pick up their produce. The Byers felt the cost of gas was well worth what they brought home. Having raised eight children in a remote town with limited fresh produce, they knew a good deal when they saw one.
“I was totally amazed, especially when I saw what was in the basket,” Beverly Byers said. “(The produce) seemed to be fresher. And just two or three things in the basket could add up to $15 at a grocery store.”
Soon Byers was thinking that Bountiful Baskets was just what Rangely needed. It took some time to sort out the paperwork and logistics, but everything was in place by May 2011, when Byers trained to become the volunteer site coordinator.
“I just trained over in Vernal three or four times until I learned what we were supposed to do,” Byers said. “I went and volunteered at the site and kind of shadowed them, got some ideas of how to do it. Then we jumped into it here.”
Bountiful Baskets is a volunteer-run co-op, which means that all participant contributions go toward the cost of produce. Other costs include an initial $3 fee for reusable laundry baskets and a $1.50 charge each cycle for the semi that brings the produce to town.
Rangely chiropractor and Bountiful Baskets volunteer Joyce Muller said the costs are minimal for the benefits participants reap.
“It’s an excellent source for people to get their fruits and vegetables,” Muller said. “When we first began, the amount of food was almost overwhelming…and sometimes we took home things I didn’t normally buy. We didn’t buy mangoes. Now I love mangoes. It was almost like Christmas every two weeks to find out what we were going to get.”
A co-op made sense to Arizona moms Sally Stevens and Tanya Jolly, who began Bountiful Baskets in 2006 and have seen it spread to hundreds of counties across 16 states since. Without the combined buying power of participants’ contributions, the same produce in the grocery store would cost around $50, the co-op’s website says.
Once participants have purchased either a regular basket for $15 or a certified organic basket for $25, they can also buy “add-ons,” from bulk tomatoes or apples to whole grain bread and seasonal produce. Offerings and availability vary from week to week, and participants sign off on the freshness of their produce before taking it home.
Despite the savings, Bountiful Baskets didn’t catch on in Rangely right away. For several weeks, only a few dozen of the 94 available baskets were spoken for. It took time before fliers created by Elizabeth Robinson Wiley, locals spreading the news on Facebook, and word of mouth got the message out.
And not just in Rangely. Within months of Rangely’s opening, Craig had two Bountiful Baskets sites. Last spring, Meeker local Jody May, whose sister lives in Craig, brought a second program to Rio Blanco County.
“I was traveling to Craig and bringing back five or six baskets,” May said. “Other people were traveling to the Rifle site. So it’s just spread like wildfire here. Five of us all run the site together, so each of us is responsible every tenth week. It’s really easy for everyone involved now.”
In the spring, Meeker and Rangely residents tend to reserve almost all of the baskets, with reservations ranging in the 50s or 60s during the summer months. Basket contributions have slowed during the holiday season, though Byers expects January to pick up again.
“I’ve been amazed at how many new people each time seem to be on the list,” Byers said. “We have at least three or four new ones every time.”
For most people who help with Bountiful Baskets, the commitment works because of its volunteer roots.
“It has to take a lot of individuals who are willing to put in the time and commitment,” Muller said. “People need to show up and need to participate to keep it going. The same people who are there time after time, it’s a tremendous effort on their part….Without the dedication of Mark and Bev, it would not be happening here.”
May agrees that volunteers have been key to the program’s success in Rio Blanco County.
“We have wonderful volunteers, so that’s pretty awesome,” she said. “Nobody’s doing it to get ahead. Everybody’s doing it to help each other.”
• To sign up for the next Bountiful Baskets, go to www.bountifulbaskets.org between Monday, Jan. 14 at noon and Tuesday, Jan. 15 at 10 p.m. MST (the earlier the better, since baskets and add-ons are on a first-come, first-serve basis).
• Click on “Participate Now.”
On the right side of the page, click on “Register For Free” and follow the instructions to set up a username and password.
• Once you have an account set up, return to “Participate Now,” enter your account information, and follow the instructions for purchasing a basket and add-ons. Only debit and credit cards are accepted at this time.
• To pick up your basket, come to Rangely’s EEC or the old Meeker Elementary School at 10:45 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 19 (pickup times often run early, so check with the site coordinator to see whether that’s the case).
For questions or more information, contact Beverly Byers at (970) 629-2227 (Rangely) or Jody May at (970) 261-6567 (Meeker).