The Northwind Natural Foods Co-op in Ironwood continues to expand its community offerings after receiving nearly $200,000 in federal grant money in 2022.
The approximately $193,000 USDA Farm Bill grant is helping the community-operated co-op complete needed upgrades and repairs, as well as adding a commercial kitchen at its downtown location, says co-op manager Cathy Flory.
When it came to applying for the grant, Flory says she asked herself questions like: What do we need done? What do we want? What’s going to save us money and what’s going to make us money and what does the community want?
So far, the grant money has enabled the co-op to refinish the wood floor, replace floor tiles and paint the interior. The co-op has also used the grant money to purchase two additional freezers.
The upgrades have been well received by customers.
“There’s a lot of new customers coming in, locals and tourists alike, (who) are very excited about the new appearance inside. It’s amazing what a difference refinishing on the floor and a fresh coat of paint will do for a business,” she says.
Located on Suffolk Street, the co-op began as a buying club and was incorporated in 1979. The co-op has been at its current location for nearly 20 years. The co-op has approximately 400 members, who are responsible for selecting the seven members who serve on the co-op’s governing board. Staffing the store are five paid employees and eight active volunteers.
Other planned improvements include a new roof, new heating and cooling, a new facade and a commercial kitchen, Flory says.
Flory attributes the successful grant to some advice from a board member at a nearby co-op in Wisconsin. That same board member suggested getting more freezers and obtaining a liquor license.
“Which makes perfect sense because (alcohol and frozen goods are) shelf stable, things that aren’t going to go bad – which is where we see our biggest loss,” Flory says. “Obviously we have to have produce, but there’s a lot of waste that comes with that.”
The recent delivery of a new freezer, which will help the co-op stock more frozen foods.
Along with the two freezers, the grant also enabled the co-op to purchase a smaller display fridge for grab-and-go items once the commercial kitchen is complete.
While there is grant money for the commercial kitchen, the final cost has not been determined; the co-op is awaiting a design timeline for that project. Additional grants may be needed.
The co-op’s location in downtown Ironwood, a city of about 5,000 people, and its mission make it ideally suited for the federal grant, Flory says.
“One of the focal points of this grant, of why I was like, ‘We have to apply for this,’ is in reading the description of who they were targeting, it was retail food establishments in low-income food deserts,” she explained, referring to areas where people have limited access to a variety of healthy food options.
Shelves recently restocked with fresh produce.
Although Flory realizes not everything the co-op offers can compete with prices at a large chain grocery store, the co-op tries to keep the cost of necessities affordable and provides a crucial resource for those who have trouble traveling to the city’s larger stores.
“We do serve the downtown community who are on foot, who may not even have a car; we’re there for them to shop,” Flory says. “I just think it’s an important thing for downtown, period, to have a place to buy groceries and food. You need that in a downtown.”
The co-op also offers items that can’t always be found at chain stores and the ability to buy certain items in bulk can reduce the cost for customers.
Michael Meyer, executive director of Ironwood Area Chamber of Commerce, expects the upgrades will enable the co-op to further its mission.
“Once they can get that building fixed up … then they can go out to some more local producers and bring things in,” Meyer says. “If they can grow their volume, they can drop their prices – which I know is a serious thing for many people.”
Meyer also sees the co-op, which was just named the chamber's Organization of the Year for 2022, as a potential leader in a community-wide shift towards local sustainability.
“As they continue to grow in their physical capacity to offer services and in their physical capacity to store products, (the co-op’s) role as a seller of local farm produce is now going to be greatly expanded – and that really, culturally, opens up a small, tiny door here to the realization that we as a community need to be more self-sufficient in producing local food,” he says.
“That is a pretty radical notion, but slowly … I think it will be soaking into some people’s heads that, in conjunction with the climate changes that are happening here, making this area more able to produce food than it has been ... is a growing economic opportunity and it’s also a growing sustainability opportunity here. And that co-op is the center (of that shift).”
Providing access to local goods is crucial to the co-op’s mission. The store offers local produce during the warmer months and sources approximately 90 percent of its pork and beef carried from farms in the Upper Peninsula.
More information on the Northwind Natural Foods Co-op can be found at northwindcoop.org/
or by visiting facebook.com/northwindcoop