Touring Michigan Food Co-ops

by Ray Anderson  l  originally appeared in March 2020 PFC Newsletter

As Peoples Food Co-op Ann Arbor nears its 50th Anniversary come July of 2021, it is interesting to reflect on the early co-op years of the late 1960’s and the beginning of the 1970’s which spawned a broad concern for healthy, natural foods commonly unavailable.  With our many established Michigan food cooperatives, there is a similar history through the formation of small food buying clubs.  Several of those food buying clubs took on greater purpose forming and incorporating as not for profit storefronts to serve their communities and inviting member ownership of these new businesses instead of following corporate models.  These brave cooperatives became oasis for all who were concerned with a healthy lifestyle and soon became engines for generating their local economies in organic farming and production of other locally made goods.  Michigan co-ops grew steadily through  the next few decades needing to find bigger spaces and often moving several times.  By 2013, corporate food chains discovered the burgeoning natural foods market and thus began a sea change in many co-ops’ financial viability.

As a result, much has changed since those early days and many of our Michigan co-ops as well as food co-ops across the nation have needed to adapt and evolve to remain a vibrant part of their respective local economies.  In response to members/owners growing interest and needs, co-ops alike have strove to add more choices and products requiring more space and efficiency.  Today, food cooperatives stay strong by their shared community while supporting local food security and promoting food justice. In turn, loyal cooperative members have increased their financial support in their respective businesses they own to make needed changes to remain sustainable in the ever increasing competitive natural foods market.  A tour of our wonderful Michigan food co-ops shows many models of adaptation to a sustainable future.

Located in the most northern area of the Upper Peninsula is Keweenaw Co-op. Starting as a bulk buying club in 1973, Keweenaw Co-op first formed as a store in a small restaurant in Houghton.  After several moves including across the Keweenaw Waterway to Hancock, the co-op found their current home as a full-line grocery store in 1986.  In 2010, Keweenaw Co-op, by vote of  their membership, reincorporated as a true cooperative requiring their member/owners to increase their economic participation and investment to the new $200 member fee.  They report that they have created a stronger and more financially sound business.

Traveling a bit south in the Upper Peninsula to Marquette the growth of Marquette Food Co-op (MFC) over the past ten years is evident and felt throughout their local economy.  The Marquette Food Co-op opened its doors in 1971.  With limited space and little opportunity to better serve its members, the co-op board began considering expansion in 2010.  By 2014 and with member support, MFC took on a $4.6 expansion into a newly renovated retail space with parking.  Members now join with a $150 fee and their co-op has experienced significant growth.

Moving into the Lower Peninsula, Grain Train Co-op in Petoskey is certainly a great stop when visiting the Little Traverse Bay area.  Grain Train formed as a buying club in 1971, and after years of fundraising and asking members for a larger financial commitment, they were able to move into its current 4,500 square-foot storefront on the western edge of downtown Petoskey in 2002.  In 2012, Grain Train opened a second grocery in Boyne City.  Member/Owner investment is $210 total.  They have subsequently opened up a standalone market café also in downtown Petoskey in 2018.

While visiting Grand Traverse Bay in Traverse City, Oryana Food Co-op is a definite must visit.  Oryana is Michigan’s largest  food co-op and it is clear when in their store that Oryana is a vibrant part of the Traverse City community and economy.  Emerging out of a local buying club in 1972,  the co-op moved into a downtown store front in 1974.  In 1997, Oryana moved away from downtown into a former lumber store building  which required significant renovations.  They have expanded in their space many times since then including their 2007 addition doubling their capacity.  In 2016, they added a new dining area for their café.  They have also been able to continue to increase parking area while adding solar panels since moving into their 10th Street store.  Oryana is an easy, comfortable and fully stocked cooperative store to shop and meet.  Members must pay yearly $20 to enjoy the benefits of ownership.

Moving further south, Greentree Co-op in Mount Pleasant is about to undergo a major change.  Greentree started a capital campaign in September 2019  with the plan to move into their new space July 2021.  They will quadruple the size of their existing store.  Members currently purchase memberships with a $210 payment.

Among the “Cool Cities” tour, People’s Food Co-op in Kalamazoo moved into its new location in 2011 near two of Michigan’s highest rated craft breweries, Bell’s and Arcadia.  The co-op took over operations of three local farmer’s markets in 2013.  In its new location it provides ample parking as well as keeping its energy footprint low with the addition of solar panels.  Owner investment and membership fee is available for a $250 payment.

East Lansing Food Co-op (ELFCO) succumbed to the pressures of intense competition in 2017 when Whole Foods opened a store just 200 yards from their Michigan Avenue store.  Upon closing their doors that year,  the hard-working board of directors promised a rebirth in the future. In July of last year a new location was found and work progresses on necessary renovations to the space.  We look forward to their reopening and perhaps a name change since their new store will be located in Lansing Township.

Our friends at Ypsilanti Food Co-op over the years have continued to expand into their historic millworks building in Depot Town, Ypsilanti.  The grocery operates in a small space, but it has big impact on local projects.  Noteworthy is their Local Honey Project, which has helped get Ypsilanti designated as a “Bee City USA”.  They have also installed many energy saving additions including a 60 panel solar array.  As Depot Town’s popularity continues to grow, Ypsilanti Food Co-op is studying ways to further serve its growing membership.  Current membership is a single $200 payment.

Soon Detroit will be adding a new food co-op in Detroit’s historic North End, Detroit People’s Food Co-op.  The mission of  the co-op is to serve the low and moderate income predominately African American community.   The vision of the new co-op will be part of the planned Detroit Food Commons, which will feature an incubator kitchen where culinary artists and food entrepreneurs can test and hone their concepts.  The co-op will be linked to D-Town Farm, Detroit’s largest urban farm, which is located in the city’s Rouge Park.  DPFC membership is $200.

When traveling around our great state, stop in to see what these co-ops have done with the help of their members and support them as they work to strengthen their respective local economies.  They are all indeed our home away from home and have put together a great story for us all to celebrate in our shared, soon to be 50 years of cooperation.