Thursday, November 19, 2015

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

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
November 19, 2015
Photography by Zinta Aistars

Chris Moore and Bree Bird at People's Food Co-op in Kalamazoo, MI

Forty-five years after Kalamazoo, Michigan’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 ...


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