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Local, sustainable sustenance sold at People's Food Co-op

Salam Rida/Daily
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Daily Arts Writer
Published January 17, 2011

On a cold and snowy Tuesday morning, the People’s Food Co-op bustles with activity despite the drifts piling up outside. The shoppers, immune to the pitfalls of Michigan weather, simply dust off their bicycle helmets and stomp the snow off their rugged boots before entering.

Once inside, it’s easy to see why customers would brave tundra-like conditions to make a weekly pilgrimage to this red brick Mecca in the heart of Kerrytown. Put simply, the Food Co-op gives off good vibes. It’s as if breathing the air, just looking at the local apples and organic kale, even considering washing your hair with jojoba shampoo will permanently rid your system of toxins and allow you to contort your body into the most fantastic yoga positions.

But this sense of balance and integrity doesn’t just spring out of nowhere. For 40 years, the People’s Food Co-op has been catering to the needs of the Ann Arbor community at large — 15 percent of which are University students.

The Co-op was officially started in 1971.

“That was the tail end of Vietnam, and (was) kind of a reaction to the ’50s, when everybody thought science was saving the world and people thought, why cook when you can open a box and add water?” said Kevin Sharp, the Co-op’s marketing and member services manager. “The ’60s and ’70s were reacting against some of that stuff. There was a real movement back to nature and people were looking to get away from all that highly processed stuff.”

According to Sharp, there are a variety of legends surrounding the Co-op’s start-up, but the most important part of its story and its success is that it was a grassroots movement that percolated up to satisfy the needs of all of Ann Arbor.

“We’re still here because of the hard work, commitment and dedication of those who utilize the Co-op’s resources, because of people who value what we’ve done,” Sharp said. “There have definitely been ups and downs; it’s come close (to closing) a few times, but we’re not here to make stockholders wealthy or open stores around the country.”

It’s this sense of openness and honesty in the Co-op’s approach to business that has drawn members of the community toward it. For example, David Klingenberger grew up in Ann Arbor and worked at the Co-op when he was in high school.

Klingenberger now runs his own local business, The Brinery, where he makes natural, fermented foods like sauerkraut that he describes as “artisanal, ancient and delicious.” But it was his days spent working at the Co-op that sparked his passion for locally crafted foods.

“I love the strong connection it has to the neighborhood and its dedication to local farmers,” Klingenberger said. “Especially since now, things that are local and handcrafted are kind of under siege in this country.”

Indeed, Sharp can remember a time when Kerrytown was even more of, as he puts it, “an alterna-hippie heaven.” He remembers that years ago there was a community-owned bakery and even a spice co-op just around the corner on Ann Street.

“I think now, people are really seeing what it’s like when a local business goes and then a big chain moves in,” he said. "When I first started working as produce manager, I used to scoff at something ‘local’ being from a farm 15 miles away, but now, because of urban sprawl, among other things, we’d be delighted to have produce from a farm 15 miles away.”

It’s hard to supply local produce, especially in the winter, but the Co-op’s first duty is always to its customers. If the customers want bananas (and there is no chance in Hell, Michigan, that anyone is growing local bananas, especially in January) then the Co-op will carry bananas, even if it means bringing them in from California.