Food co-op in downtown Battle Creek will support local food growers and makers

The community needs to rally around the food co-op as it has with other projects like The Milton. – Cody Newman
Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

A food co-op in downtown Battle Creek will provide food for the body and the soul, says Jeremy Andrews, founder of Sprout BC.

Although Sprout BC is launching this project, Andrews says the “community of member-owners will own it.”

“People gather around food and any community event worth its salt has a food component. If you want to capture people and hang out with them food is important,” he says. “A local food system helps build a local economy and helps keep dollars in our community.”
 
In addition to supporting local growers and makers of food items, co-ops such as the one being created by Andrews and his team also are an “expected amenity” for residents living downtown, says Joe Sobieralski, President and CEO of Battle Creek Unlimited.
 
“Having access to fresh food and food options like 'grab and go' style is an expected amenity when it comes to urban housing,” Sobieralski says. “This co-op is a huge step forward to having that option.”
 
From an economic development standpoint, Sobieralski says, “If you don’t have these types of options, you’re that much further behind your peer markets.”
 
Andrews says it was important to him and his team to have the co-op located in the city’s downtown for a number of reasons.
 
“Downtown is centrally located and surrounded by some of the most diverse socioeconomic populations in Battle Creek. With more people living downtown, the co-op will give them options for convenient and accessible food options,” he says.

The future location of a local food Co-op is in downtown Battle Creek.“The co-op will be closer for those who live adjacent to downtown than Walmart or Meijer. I also believe it will be a new experience for those who live farther north or south. I am a firm believer that the more food options we have downtown, the better it is for everybody downtown.”
 
A feasibility study conducted by two national food co-op consultants showed that “even with Horrocks downtown, there is a significant opportunity for individuals and businesses to provide healthy, fresh food, prepared food, and staples,” Andrews says.
 
And he says customers who frequent the co-op also will be exposed to existing businesses in the downtown area.
 
Andrews, who was born and raised in Battle Creek, says he remembers a time during the 1980s and 1990s when he was told that downtown Battle Creek was a dangerous place. He says the businesses and residential units that have opened since that time are changing that narrative and helping to undo these antiquated stigmas.
 
“We need to stop holding onto century-old tropes,” Andrews says. “We need to embrace the possibilities.”
 
Standing in front of the future location of a local food co-op are, from left, Sprout board member Rachel Ostrander, Sprout board president Jared Kirtley, and Sprout Chief Excitement Officer Jeremy Andrews.The co-op will be located in a 4,500 square feet of a 13,500-square-foot building at 119 West Michigan Ave. Funding to get it up and running is being raised through a $1 million capital campaign that will be used to cover initial costs, including staff salaries and equipment such as coolers. The capital campaign is close to reaching half of its goal with the latest financial contribution coming on Friday through a $200,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture through its Healthy Food Financing Initiative, Andrews says.
 
BCU and the Miller Foundation also each contributed $150,000 to the project.
 
Renovations to the building will be done by Restore 269, owned by Cody and Caitlynn Newman. The couple owns the Record Box at 15 Carlyle Street. Sprout will rent their space for the food co-op from the Newmans.
 
The Newmans and Andrews have been discussing the idea of a food co-op downtown for several years. Cody Newman says there’s definitely a demand for it given the growth of residential properties that are fully occupied with waiting lists.
 
“We were looking at things downtown,” Cody Newman says. “Our whole mission is filling voids in downtown spaces to live, work, and play. We need places for people to get lunches and other meals and fresh food. As downtown residents, my wife and I would personally like to have something like this downtown.”
 
But, the community needs to rally around the food co-op as it has with other projects like The Milton, Newman says. 
 
“If you create a quality product people are going to want to be there,” he says. “We think that this is another key piece of downtown that’s needed.”
 
Jeremy Andrews is Sprout’s Chief Excitement Officer.Newman says he is in the process of securing financing to purchase the West Michigan Avenue building from BCU, the current owner. Once the financing is in place and he takes ownership, he estimates that it will cost about $750,000 to renovate the first floor for the food co-op with the money coming through bank loans, BCU, and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. He plans to eventually build seven apartments on the second and third floors of the building.
 
“I’d love to start the work on the food co-op this winter, but until the funding comes through, I don’t know,” Newman says. “We still have to go through and stabilize the building. It’s going to need new floors, new lights, and new mechanicals.”
 
Andrews says he’s targeting an early summer 2023 opening for the co-op.
 
While capital campaign funding will get the co-op started, he says it is community members that will sustain it.
 
“We want to create something that is owned and supported by the community and consumers that is not reliant on philanthropy to keep it going,” he says. “Food co-ops are a niche that is the least supported by government-subsidized dollars. They are the least supported of any food enterprises in our country. We want to level that playing field and support local businesses with direct support from consumers, ensuring that the connection is rich and vibrant.”
 
That direct support will come from customers, some of whom will become members of the co-op. Andrews and his Sprout team are in the midst of promoting a $200 lifetime membership fee that gives individuals an ownership stake in the co-op.
 
Although anyone will be able to make purchases at the co-op, members will be able to participate in the election of a board of directors. The board will guide the overall operation of the business which will be led on a day-to-day basis by a general manager. Each member also will have a vote and own one share in the co-op which will give them the opportunity to earn dividends.
 
“This is one member, one vote. It’s democratically controlled with a small 'd,' he says. “But, it’s really an investment in the community and in your local food system. You can become a lifetime owner in the biggest local food system. We’re also going to create owner certificate bonds as another way for owners to earn and invest.”
 
Cooperatives around the world generally operate according to the same core principles and values, adopted by the International Co-operative Alliance in 1995. Cooperatives trace the roots of these principles to the first modern cooperative founded in Rochdale, England in 1844, according to the National Cooperative Business Association Clusa International.
 
Andrews says the Sprout food co-op will adhere to these principles.
 
“We’ve been trained to be beholden to large corporations that provide everything for us,” he says. “Food co-ops are pro-little guys. It’s about easing people from the bottom up. It’s not about trashing the top, it’s about creating an equal playing field. Right now, it’s heavily swayed to benefit corporate and multi-national corporations that own the national and global food system.”
 
A decade in the making
 
The seed was planted for a food co-op in Battle Creek during a community forum in 2010 hosted by Sprout. Andrews says more than 100 members of the community attended.
 
“It was a real diverse audience,” he says. “They came up with Sprout’s goals and objectives and those were improved food access, engaging youth in urban agriculture, creating workshops and education opportunities, and eventually opening a food co-op. This has been on our minds since the very beginning of Sprout.”
 
Andrews’ initial experience with a food co-op came during time spent in the early 2000s working for one in Lansing.
 
“This was my first time seeing how community and food collide and the connectedness of economic growth, community development, and community. When I came home to Battle Creek I brought with me this drive to make my hometown a better place. For me it's rooted in that experience,” he says.
 
The Sprout food co-op will be modeled on food co-ops in Kalamazoo, Lansing, and Detroit. Sprout is a member of each of these co-ops.
 
Food co-ops began establishing themselves in the 1960s and have undergone ebbs and flows, openings, and closings, according to an article on the SFGATE website.
 
“The National Co-op Grocers, an association of food cooperatives that buy collectively, has seen its membership rise from 106 to 151 since 2006, and natural foods co-ops that have been in business for 40 years have added third, fourth, even sixth locations — small numbers compared to 38,000 large supermarkets in the United States, according to a recent count by Progressive Grocer magazine, but a significant growth nonetheless,” the article says. “An 11-year-old national organization called the Food Co-op Initiative has come up with a startup guide for groups to follow.”
 
Andrews says the growth doesn’t surprise him.
 
“I hope we get to a place in this community where we have too many food options,” he says. “We still have plenty of room to build on.”