People's Food Co-op continues to transform the local food scene

Forty-five years after Kalamazoo’s People’s Food Co-op opened its doors to the public, the co-op’s management and shareholders continuously consider its relevance. Is there still a place and role for People’s?

In 1970, the co-op was a small retail program started by a group of students and recent graduates. Dale Anderson, now the owner of a gourmet chocolate shop called "Confections with Convictions" in downtown Kalamazoo, was one of the original volunteers when People’s was operating out of a house on North Street. He drove an old truck back and forth from Ann Arbor, bringing back huge bags of brown rice and other unprocessed foods that were hard to find at that time.

"Organic foods weren’t a popular thing like they are now," says Chris Moore, media and communications coordinator at People’s. "There was a movement across the country of co-ops, and People’s wanted to bring that to Kalamazoo. The store moved from place to place, and for a while there was even an old truck that traveled around selling grains and food to people."

People’s Food Co-op was incorporated in 1973, moved to a tiny store on Burdick Street where it put down roots for 37 years, until 2011, when the co-op uprooted and moved to its current location at 507 Harrison Street, snug between the railroad tracks and MacKenzie’s Bakery. A volunteer staff expanded to include paid positions and a board of directors.

"We have 35 people on staff at this time," Moore says. "Not all are full-time, though. We rely a lot on our more than 60 volunteers."

A co-op, Moore explains, is a consumer-owned cooperative with profits circulating back into the store or to its owners, or shareholders, in the form of rebates. It’s this arrangement that makes a co-op different than a traditional grocery store. But there’s more.

"Since the co-op started, it’s always been about access," Moore says. "It’s about what’s healthy for people and the economy and what’s sustainable. That’s what drives us."

The tiny shop and old truck have expanded into a cooperative that today has 2,800 owners, a number that has tripled in the past five years. Owners enjoy an owner-designated week each month with special deals and a 10 percent discount on all non-sale items of one order, along with a coupon book issued at least four times a year along with discounts on special orders.

Owners also elect board members and vote on co-op issues. One share costs $250, paid at once or on an installment plan of $10 per month or $50 per year. Benefits click in with the first payment of $10.

Benefits go beyond discounts, however. Moore emphasizes a commitment to the community, building of relationships, and values that go before profits. The numbers back him up. In 2014, PFC spent nearly $1.5 million locally. Produce in the store was purchased from 25 local farms, bolstering the local economy and supporting local jobs.

People’s general manager Chris Dilley writes: "The face of local and healthy food systems in Kalamazoo would not be the same if People's had not been working hard for the past 45 years to improve access by sourcing whole foods, supporting local growers and businesses, and developing relationships in the community. As it stands, there are hundreds of local food entrepreneurs bringing thousands of products to market, and we're all learning together how to make that system fair and affordable."

Shaping the local food movement

In People’s Food Co-op annual report, total sales for 2014 came to more than $3.6 million. That’s impressive. But with the co-op’s mission to connect with the community, strengthen the local food system, and continually expand access to fresh, healthy foods, sales of produce off the store shelves is only a starting point.

Bree Bird is the farmers market coordinator working for People’s Food Co-op since 2006. Her job has been to take on the operation of the Kalamazoo Farmers Market, something she has been doing since 2013.

"The city put the market up for bid and we won," she says. "That, too, was about improved access. We brought in SNAP benefits along with multiple food assistance programs. There’s a misconception that poor people don’t care about good food—that’s a stereotype. Poor doesn’t mean uneducated."

Other assistance programs include Double Up Food Bucks, a project of Fair Food Network, a nonprofit supporting farmers, local economies and access to healthy food. Double Up Food Bucks match SNAP Bridge Card purchases of fruits and vegetables grown in Michigan dollar-for-dollar, effectively doubling the holder’s buying power. Vendors are also now accepting WIC Project Fresh and Senior Project Fresh Coupons.

The Kalamazoo Farmers Market operates on Saturdays from May through November, and from the beginning of June through the end of October it also is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Night markets were scheduled four times in 2015.

There's also the 100-Mile Market that runs on Wednesdays, May through October, in the parking lot that surrounds People’s Food Co-op. It offers produce grown within a 100-mile radius. The 100-Mile Market also accepts SNAP benefits.

In the past year, the farmers market hosted 170 businesses and generated $2.5 million in economic activity.

"We’ve seen a huge increase in interest in buying local, not just organic," Bird says. "People want to know the farmer who grows their food. You can buy organic at the supermarket, but can you trust it? At the market, you can build relationships."

"Local is the thing," Moore agrees. "People are taking a more holistic approach now to food. We’re not just looking at chemicals, but also fair trade, staff treatment, environmental elements, food sovereignty, self-reliance, and resiliency. There are many different pieces to consider in a healthy food system."

To that end, People’s Food Co-op co-founded Good Food Kalamazoo, an alliance to empower the community to provide itself with food that is healthy, green, fair and affordable. And, with education as a crucial factor in a food system, the co-op has helped to bring in speakers such as Michael Pollan, food journalist, and Bill McKibben, climate change mitigation advocate, and others. Fair Food Matters, another nonprofit arm of the co-op, is an educational community resource with a focus on educating youth about food.

Helping members of the community to develop small food businesses, the Can-Do Kitchen has supported more than 100 entrepreneurs with kitchen rental space and business workshops for seven years.

"The Can-Do Kitchen is in the process of becoming its own 501(c)3 nonprofit organization," says Lucy Dilley, program founder. "Of the entrepreneurs who have come through Can-Do Kitchen, around 30 continue to operate food businesses, some in their own locations and some at our location. Last year our clients used ingredients from at least 10 local producers and sold products in more than 50 retail stores and farmers markets."

Relevance sustained and future envisioned

When the People’s Food Co-op began with a few bags of brown rice, only a scattered few understood or cared about eating organic foods. Forty-five years later, the organic label can be found in most any grocery store and supermarket. Supply has met ever-increasing demand.

"Organic foods are no longer that much more expensive than processed foods," Bird says. "The perception is still there, but it’s no longer true."

Mission accomplished, one might say. People’s Food Co-op, once the only organic food player in town, has helped to change the way people in greater Kalamazoo eat, shop, and think about food. Although other health food stores are doing a bustling business in the area, People’s remains the only co-op.

"Long-term visioning is a constant for us," Bird says. "Talking about our 5-year plan is our norm, but we often look beyond. At the farmers market, we are talking about what changes we might want to make while keeping the open-air market our regulars enjoy. We are talking to our vendors about increasing transparency because not everything sold there is organic. We are asking vendors to substantiate the claims they make."

"Our board has been working on our 25-year visioning," adds Moore. "We are concerned about climate change and how that will affect the food system. We think about national trends, national food policy, and global food policies. Many of our owners are concerned about GMOs. Access is a term that is constantly being redefined, and that includes access to information. We’ll do the homework for you."

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC. She also hosts the weekly radio show about books and writers, Between the Lines, at WMUK 102.1 FM.