Tom Wickersham ’90 and Melanie Drake ’92

Food for thought.

Tom Wickersham ’90 and Melanie Drake ’92

Tom Wickersham ’90 and Melanie Drake ’92 spearhead the Rooted Carrot Co-op Market in Cedar Falls.

When Tom Wickersham ’90 and Melanie Drake ’92 sat down about a decade ago to figure out where to live for the rest of their lives, they came up with a list. For starters, they wanted to be near family, and they wanted a place where they could stay and retire, rather than move again.

“We wanted a community that was a manageable size, that we could get our arms around,” explains Wickersham. They needed access to outdoor natural spaces, and they also wanted a food co-op.

The couple first met when Melanie, an anthropology major and daughter of Sue Ratcliff Drake ’58 and George Drake ’56, was living on Langan Second. Tom was an art major and lived in Langan Pit. They were friends for years and Wickersham spent a few breaks with the Drakes and became close to the family. “We didn’t date until many years later,” Melanie says.

Tom and Melanie were married in 2009 and started talking about where to put down roots. “For two-and-a-half years, we drove all over the Midwest doing research and visiting with people from different towns,” Wickersham explains, “and we discovered that we weren’t finding a lot of options that fit all of our needs.” They compromised on the food co-op – deciding a good natural foods store would suffice – and ended up moving to Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Two weeks after they arrived, the natural foods store owner announced the store’s closing. Tom and Melanie and two other local residents hatched an idea: maybe the community would be willing to support a food co-op. After putting up flyers and spreading the word, they were thrilled when 75 residents attended a kickoff meeting. “We figured that was impetus enough to keep going with it,” Drake says.

They incorporated in 2014, and after years of planning and thousands of hours put in by themselves and many other volunteers, the 8,000 square foot Rooted Carrot Co-op Market is set to open in downtown Cedar Falls in summer 2022. They’ve recruited more than 1,085 members who’ve bought co-op shares and are represented by the co-op board. More than 75 local businesses are partners with the co-op. They even have a mascot, Rooty the Carrot (Melanie and Tom have both worn Rooty’s costume at local events).

Melanie Drake ’92 is pictured next to Rooty the Carrot, the mascot for the Rooted Carrot Co-op Market.
Melanie Drake ’92 is pictured next to Rooty the Carrot, the mascot for the Rooted Carrot Co-op Market.

Wickersham, who until recently served as president of the co-op board, first learned about cooperatives when he lived in Davis, California. “I was involved with a food co-op but also in the cooperative movement,” he says. “I learned about housing cooperatives, childcare cooperatives, credit unions, and agricultural cooperatives, and became sold on the concept. It’s about people over profits. Cooperatives in general aren’t as interested in the bottom line as they are the community and the well-being of its members.”

Drake shopped at New Pioneer Food Co-op in Iowa City while in graduate school. “It’s so much more than a grocery store,” she explains. “Co-ops give back and connect with their communities in so many ways.” Typical of a food co-op, Rooted Carrot will emphasize local and sustainably raised foods.

“That’s because we want people to be healthy; we want the ground and earth to be healthy; and we are shipping food at much shorter distances so there’s less of an environmental impact,” Wickersham explains.

The store will encourage community meetings and classes, donate money back to local organizations, display artwork from local artists, and host local musicians. “There are lots of ways that co-ops connect with the community,” says Drake, who until recently was the co-op’s outreach coordinator, recruiting members and engaging with the community. She’s now focusing efforts on communication and member-engaged projects, while Wickersham is concentrating on the store’s $2.8 million capital campaign.

Even though the co-op’s not yet open, “volunteers are finding that sense of community that they hadn’t found before,” Drake says. “We’ve had our challenging moments but planning and working on this has been such a beautiful experience and for me, it’s the most rewarding experience I’ve had in my life.”


For additional information about the planned co-op, visit the Rooted Carrot Co-op Market website.

— by Anne Stein ’84

Community and connection have always been at Grinnell’s core. President Anne F. Harris speaks to the importance of the Grinnell community, and Carson Peters ’20 shows gratitude to the essential workers serving her community.