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

Salam Rida/Daily
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BY EMILY BOUDREAU
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.

“We still do have a commitment to local farmers, and sometimes we do get criticism for charging two dollars for garlic, but we’ve made that commitment,” Sharp said.

At the same time, the people at the Co-op are running a business that they hope they can sustain for another 40-plus years.

“We have to charge enough for rent and pay our workers, but (as a not-for-profit organization), the measure of what’s profitable and how we do business is different,” Sharp said.

Unlike Whole Foods, the Co-op doesn’t try to cater to a higher-end shopper and instead wants to reach out to all members of the community, providing them with the opportunity to incorporate local, organic and healthy foods into their diet. However, even if a customer is stockpiling bananas from California, a solid 70 to 80 percent of the Co-op’s food is organic or at least is no-spray.

“So like with the garlic example, if the local is too expensive, we’d also buy cheaper garlic and put both kinds out, clearly labeled, and let the customer make their own choice,” Sharp said.

The Co-op is particularly customer-oriented because it’s owned by the people who shop there. Anyone can walk in and become a member.

“Right now, we have around 7,000 members who’ve invested to maintain a place where they know the food has integrity and that we’re not trying to get rich off their tofu and sprouts,” Sharp said.

What the Co-op is trying to do is to bring people together to meet a need in an egalitarian and honest way.

“Co-ops have been around forever,” Sharp said. “It’s how a lot of indigenous cultures operate. Even after the Industrial Revolution, when corporate interests took advantage of people in a community, people banded together in response to that … We want to promote the Co-op as a model of doing business and hope others look at it and say, ‘Hey, that works.’ ”

“When I first started The Brinery, I knew that the Co-op would be a perfect place for my product,” Klingenberger said. “It’s supportive and welcoming and more than any other place represents the local food … (That’s) something I want to be a real economic force in Washtenaw County.”

The People’s Food Co-op isn’t the only force pushing for a return to local foods in Ann Arbor. Even here at the University, people are moving to make the way students live more sustainable.

“For many years now we’ve been trying to bring in more local foods (to the housing system),” said Kathy Whiteside, University Housing nutritionist. “We’re lucky that we’ve been able to formalize it and have it grow … We can’t purchase everything local, but we have the option when it’s affordable and available in the quantities we need.”

It’s hard to find local farmers who can supply the school with the enormous amount of produce required, but luckily, the more the University wants, the more the local farmers can expand.

Yet the dining system isn’t just limited to incorporating more sustainable produce.

“Sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations,” said Sandra Lowry, director of the Residential Dining Services. “And that’s what we are trying to do here. We’ve got the tray-less initiative in East Quad right now; composting; we recycle our cooking oil; we recycle plastic, aluminum, glass and our napkins are all recyclable.”

Of course, the success of these initiatives depends on the students’ willingness to participate. Students' requests and input play a large role in the University’s movement to a more sustainable future. In 2007, a student contacted Whiteside to ask if the milk at the school was rBST free. Whiteside was able to work with the University’s vendor, a local farmer co-operative, to remove the additive.

It’s changes and initiatives like these in the University’s dining system that ally with the People’s Food Co-op’s mission in responding to changes in the technology, environmental practices and legislation in America that surround the way our food is produced.

“I don’t know how we can do anything but continue to nurture the community, reduce our carbon footprints, support local farmers and promote sustainability … It’s a complex web we’ve woven to feed ourselves, and these concerns aren’t going away,” Sharp said.