Member owned since 1971!
On August 10, 1971 the official articles of incorporation of the People’s Food Co-op were filed, but a lot of community effort led up to that event.
The idea for a co-op actually began as a graduate student project under Professor Al Conner at the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work (Al is still a Co-op member today!) Two students started a buying club as a way for low-income people to get fresh, healthy food. They brought food from the Eastern Market in Detroit and divided it into bags costing $5 a week. The project grew quickly as faculty as well as students joined the group.
By February of 1971, with food fronted by a grain co-op in Detroit and a $150 loan, space was rented at 215 S. State and the group began selling peanuts, peanut butter, honey, sunflower seeds, brown rice and soybeans. Sales averaged $30 a week. All work was done by volunteers, decisions were made at weekly community meetings and there was no formal definition of membership. Early Co-op documents show “a commitment to locally grown, organic food and protection of the environment,” which remain PFC’s core values to this day decades later.
To meet increasing demand, the group moved six months later to a larger location at 802 S. State St. They added grains, cheese, oils and beans and sales grew to $100 a week. In October 1972, the Co-op moved again to a house at 722 Packard where it remained for 13 years.
Increasing demand for natural-food products led to PFC wholesaling to other co-ops around the state. This evolved into the Michigan Federation of Food Co-ops, which ran its own mill (the Daily Grind) and warehouse (People’s Wherehouse) selling Michigan-grown organic grains, beans and flour to co-ops nationwide.
A second PFC location opened at 212 N. Fourth Ave. in 1975 followed by the opening of Wildflour Baking Collective, People’s Produce Co-op, and the Ann Arbor Tofu Collective in 1976 and the People’s Herb and Spice Co-op in summer of 1978, all on the same block. The Co-op grossed close to $500,000 in 1978. By the summer of 1985, the Produce and Herb co-ops merged with PFC and a new store opened on Packard. The new store had better lighting, lots of fresh produce and the addition of dairy products. The Fourth Ave. store expanded significantly in 1994 when it moved two doors north to 216 N. Fourth.
By 1997 PFC consolidated its operations closing the Packard store after several years of financial struggle. In 2000 the Co-op expanded by opening Café Verde—Ann Arbor’s first fair-trade coffee bar—and adding a prepared foods kitchen and hot food/salad bar. Sales are now topping $5.5 million with a membership of over 6,500.
Over the years, people and their needs changed and decision-making processes have evolved as well. A more formalized system of membership came about in 1977 and the first “official” board of directors took office in April 1980. The current member-share system was implemented in 1986 with an initial membership fee and a one-member/one-vote system. Changes in staff structure reflected the growing size and complexity of the Co-op. The initial all-volunteer work force eventually became paid staff with a department structure, management team and a general manager who oversees day-to-day operations.
Now, many years from those first days in a tiny store front, PFC continues to provide quality food at fair prices with a strong commitment to offering local products, many of which are sustainably and organically grown. One percent of profits go into education and outreach programs that reflect our community’s commitment to sustainable living and a donation program that supports a diverse selection of community groups. One of PFC’s original members shares her perspective of the Co-op:
As a long-time member, a student, at-home mom and now a working mom, I’ve experienced the Co-op from almost every conceivable perspective. It has supported me and my family through transition after transition, and the children love the Co-op. The staff and other co-op members have been unfailingly polite and helpful. Local products sourced by the Co-op add to our feeling of community and interconnectedness.
The qualities added to our lives far transcend the simple products and purchases.The values embodied by this organization, which has survived and thrived over the years in spite of many moves, upheavals and disputes, these values have carried forward the vision of cooperative business as a practical and logical alternative. The ideals the Co-op was founded on are now living, breathing examples for my children. Their world is richer and more diverse because of the Co-op. They see everyone pitching in to help. They understand the concepts embodied by the Co-op and they are proud to be even a little part of it.
For information on the Ann Arbor Co-operative Society’s early 1930s history, follow this link.