Jessica Wilt, who co-owns Central City Co-op with husband Erick Navas, likens its recent move to the former Steel City Pops location in the Heights to a graduating high schooler who is going off to college. After all, as Wilt explains, the organic co-op is actually 20 years old.
It reopened in July at 420 E. 20th St., Suite A, where co-op members as well as other members of the community can find farm-fresh produce and other food items.
“Pat Greer, who was one of the pioneers of healthy living and eating, started it on her porch,” Wilt said. “It was kind of an ambiguous business organization. It was never a nonprofit, but a Texas not-for-profit.”
The money earned or donated was used to keep the co-op running. For a time, it operated out of Ecclesia Houston just north of downtown, and then Grace Lutheran, which later became Kindred church in the Hyde Park area. Wilt said over time, it became more difficult for the members to keep the co-op going.
As the founding volunteers took on new projects, there was a need for the co-op to have a director. Wilt and Navas were asked if they would be the stewards of the co-op, which meant taking on its debt and day-to-day operations.
For the past four years, the couple has worked on restructuring it and running the co-op and farmer’s market more as a business. When Navas’ company offered him a voluntary resignation package, the oil engineer took it so he could devote the next six months to growing the co-op. Wilt has spent the last four years working steadily on its development.
The couple’s efforts are working. Central City has gotten about 200 new members in the last several months.
With a master’s degree in economic development from Penn State, Wilt is clear on her vision for the organization, which includes returning ownership of the co-op to the community.
“We offer shares, but anyone can shop here, like a grocery store,” Wilt said. “You don’t have to be a member.”
Wilt said the co-op started as a way to have local, sustainable, organic food, but it is a good business incubator as well that offers small and micro farmers an outlet for their produce.
“Farmers need to farm,” Wilt said. “Any time that is spent away from the farm is time lost.”
It is not just any farmer who the co-op utilizes. Wilt said the 50 or so vendors and farmers that Central City partners with go beyond the USDA organic certification.
“We really care about what is going into the soil,” Wilt said. “The farmers we use are into regenerative, sustainable agriculture. They have less acres of land.”
Wilt said they buy directly from farmers every week and don’t haggle over the price.
“We get what they have available,” she said. “The week’s bounty is always different.”
What has been constant is how busy they’ve been.
“It’s just exploded,” Wilt said. “We are adding more refrigeration. We are changing every week.”
They had been looking for more space when the former Steel City Pops location became available. Wilt said she was able to negotiate a reasonable lease for six months, starting in July. They hope to extend it.
There are still popsicles on site, too, but now they are made of goat milk and come from All We Need Farm in Needville.
The co-op has been open six days a week. It is closed on Mondays. Wednesday is the day for people to come pick up their “Fresh Harvest” mixed produce baskets in either a small, medium or large quantity. The baskets come with suggested recipes.
“People might come to a regular farmer’s market to get a breakfast taco and look around,” she said. “They might see a beautiful radish but they don’t know what to do with them. Here we help them to see the radish and make something delicious and wonderful out of it.”
Members get their weekly basket as well as a discount on other items. Their volunteer hours also net them discounts.
Wilt and Navas moved into the Heights in 2012 and finished building a home in the neighborhood in 2016, the same year they took on the co-op.
“We are committed to the community and passionate about what we are doing,” Wilt said. “We want to be stewards who eventually set (this) out into the world.”
A new website will debut in a few weeks. For more information, visit https://www.centralcityco-op.com/.