December 7, 2016

Telling a Story of Food

As an avid gardener, “localvore” (one who likes to shop locally), and member of Cloverland Electric Cooperative, I’m interested in the goings-on at the Marquette Food Co-op (MFC). It’s a retail outlet for organic food, some of which is grown nearby.

It’s also the epitome of the “cooperative” model. It’s an organization that, like Cloverland and Michigan’s 11 other electric co-ops, is owned by its members. In MFC’s case, members pay a one-time fee of $150, which makes them eligible for discounts and in-store specials.

But selling wholesome food is only part of what the Marquette Food Co-op is about. They also have an exemplary community outreach program that educates people about healthy eating, lifestyles and local agriculture. Through cooking classes, food demos, workshops, farm tours and displays at community events, they connected with about 11,600 people in 2012 alone.

They also have their own “hoophouse,” in partnership with Northern Michigan University, where they teach people to garden and experiment with different growing techniques. (A hoophouse is an easy-to-build greenhouse that allows food plants to be grown in the off-season.)

However, the MFC’s grocery store is their focal point. It grossed $5 million last year and is moving from their quaint-but-cramped quarters to a much larger store on busy Washington Street.

“There is a national interest in safe food and knowing where it comes from,” says Natasha Lantz, community liaison for MFC. This has been spurred partly by Michael Pollen, author of “Botany of Desire,” and other authors who shed light on problems associated with eating food tainted by chemicals. America’s appetite for fast food has also resulted in higher rates of childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes. Fortunately, more people are becoming aware and seeking venues for wholesome, locally-produced food.

The MFC started in 1971 as a loose-knit group of people making runs to Ann Arbor to get organic food in bulk. Over the years, it morphed into a typical health food store, but struggled and nearly went bankrupt in the mid-90s. By 2000, with management changes and rigorous financial controls, they were talking about expanding their store. In recent years they really tapped into locally-produced products, including fruit, vegetables, meat, honey and maple syrup.

One of their crowning achievements is the U.P. Farm Directory. It lists producers offering everything from eggs to eggplant, and has made these businesses and products much more available to consumers. Many of these farmers now sell their products at the MFC store.

“Many growers came to us,” says Abbey Palmer, MFC special projects coordinator and hoophouse supervisor. Growers were also attracted through the outreach program. One of them is Dan Rabine and his wife Mary Kramer-Rabine in Eben Junction, southeast of Munising. The couple grows vegetables in season-extending hoophouses.

“They [MFC] make it possible for smaller growers,” Rabine explains. “They’ll take smaller quantities and they’re very flexible with delivery schedules.”

Taking the co-op model to the next stage, MFC’s Lantz and Michelle Walk of MSU Extension are helping to form the U.P. Food Exchange. It’s an agricultural hub being created with funds MFC received from a Regional Food Systems Grant from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development last fall.

The Exchange coordinates movement between the U.P.’s three food hubs (eastern, central and western). The project aims to establish both online and physical sites for farm products, improve local food storage capacity, and educate consumers, farmers and institutional buyers about the Exchange’s resources and benefits.

The Marquette Food Co-op is really telling a story about where food is coming from, how it’s grown, and by whom, Lantz says. But they’re also writing a story by letting their greater community know what healthy eating is all about and how people can “cooperate” in growing wholesome food to feed their families.

– Neil Moran gardens in the U.P. and writes about it at northcountrygardening.blogspot.com.