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Shoppers take control of their food system, economic power

Co-op store Dec. community engagement session at the Red Door Gallery.  ABA IFEOMA PHOTO

Co-op store Dec. community engagement session at the Red Door Gallery. ABA IFEOMA PHOTO

Community group to build co-operative grocery store in North End neighborhood

By Phreddy Wischusen
The Michigan Citizen

DETROIT — Detroit, unlike the national media has suggested, is not a “food desert.“ In addition to the new Midtown Whole Foods Market and the new State Fair Meijer, there are a plethora of great independent markets in the city: The Eastern Market; Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe and Goodwell’s in Midtown; Honeybee in Southwest; Al-Haramain and Bozek’s in Hamtramck; and Metro Food Land on the West side are just a few.

And although some of the Detroit’s grocery stores are owned by city residents, many are owned by persons living outside of the city limits. In some of those cases, shoppers say stores are poorly maintained and the shelf-stable stock is offered in place of fresh produce.

In all cases where the owner/corporate management of the store is situated beyond the boundaries of the city, Detroiters see some of their hard-earned and often limited grocery dollars leave the communities that so desperately need those dollars, charge members of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.

The DBCFSN and their Ujamaa Food Co-op Food Buying Club are taking strides to change that. Ujamaa is a Swahili word that refers to co-operative economics, used extensively by Julius Nyerere, first post-colonial president of Tanzania; and Dr. Maulana Karenga, founder of Kwanzaa. The DBCFSN is leading a series of community engagement sessions, to solicit feedback and encourage participation in the preliminary stages of building a brick-and-mortar co-operatively-owned grocery complex in Detroit’s North End neighborhood.

In addition to being centrally located along the Woodward corridor, DBCFSN Executive Director Malik Yakini says a North End location provides the “delicate balance of low and moderate-income residents” with those more affluent residents needed to sustain the enterprise, giving all shoppers any opportunity “to contribute to the economic viability of the community in which they live, work or drive through.”

Although a specific location has not been selected.

“We are looking at three options and expect by March we will have site control of one of those three options,” Yakini, also a founding member of DBCFSN, told the Michigan Citizen. The store will likely open in late 2015 or 2016.

This will be a “grocery store complex,” he says. “The grocery store is just part of it. Another important part of this complex will be an incubator kitchen, where aspiring food entrepreneurs who are perhaps producing food products in their kitchen or on a smaller level, can begin to wrap up their production and do it in a certified licensed kitchen so that they produce value-added products that can be sold both in our co-op and in other retail stores throughout the city. We’re trying to help food entrepreneurs make their products more widely available.

Until the store is open, interested Detroiters can still participate in co-operative economics. The DBCFSN has operated the Ujamaa Food Co-op Food Buying Club since 2009. United Natural Foods, Inc., which Yakini says is the “largest health food distributor in the U.S.,” supplies products for the buying club members. UNF also distributes to The Natural Food Patch in Ferndale and Midtown Detroit’s Whole Foods Market.

Members select items online, which are then shipped by UNF every four weeks to the DBCFSN office (3800 Puritan), where members pick them up.

Yakini says the program has been successful, but has had challenges as well.

“In order to get the kind of discount people are looking for, you have to buy items in larger quantities. So, where people are used to going to the store and buying one bottle of vegetable oil to last them for a week, in order to make this worthwhile you have to buy a case.  Which means people need to plan out differently and think differently about how they are purchasing food and other household items. It’s a shift in paradigm in terms of how people are used to making purchases.”

Akilah Muhammad is a buying club member.  She initially joined as a way to procure cheap bulk items — spices and dry goods — for her business, Sunflower Mama’s Vegan Catering Company.  Pleased with the club, she has since started buying personal care products from the club, which provides them cheaper than local health food stores.

The co-operative spirit transcends, the mere purchasing of the products, she says. “My only concern initially was transportation.  Would I always be able to get over to get my groceries?” she wondered.  Fortunately, not only has the club been flexible about pick-up times, but fellow members pitch in and will pick up and deliver co-operatively bought items to each other from time to time.  When Muhammad, doesn’t think she’ll be able to use a whole case of something, she’ll buy one anyway and split the cost and the items with her brother of other friends who are also club members.

Food grown on the DBCFSN’s D-Town Farm is available seasonally to Ujamaa Buying Club members and will be available at the co-op store.

“It’s our intent through the coop grocery store to sell not only food produced at the D-Town farm, but support other local growers,” adds Yakini. “The idea of this is to help create a more robust local food system. We (the DBCFSN) also realize that we are not the local food system, we are one participant; so we are interested in helping all of the boats rise for all of the folks helping to create this food system.”

Interested persons can sign up for a bi-weekly newsletter that will keep them informed as to how the store planning develops.  Additionally, the DBCFSN is hosting a series of community engagement sessions.  The next two sessions are: The Co-op store community engagement meeting on Jan. 22, at 6 p.m. in the Cass Corridor Commons (4605 Cass Ave.) and the Co-operative Economics Teach-in on Jan. 25 at 1 p.m. in the Detroit Public Library Main Branch, Clara Stanton Jones Auditorium (5201 Woodward Ave.).

Audience feedback has been carefully recorded and used to refine store plans already, Yakini says. Within the next 30 days, Yakini expects, the DBCFSN can begin signing up co-op store members and collecting member equity fees.  “We need more than 1,000 members before we open the store,” Yakini says. “Part of the reason we need members is because a co-op is, by definition, co-operatively owned.” Yakini says the co-op will use member-equity fees to leverage the procurement of some “more traditional” funding, required to complete the project.

“Within the current evolution of Detroit, we see lots of development happening, but often that development doesn’t benefit the people who have been living in neighborhoods for decades.  We’re concerned they not only have options to buy healthy food, but they have options that are community-owned,” Yakini says. “On the most basic level, what we’re doing is taking back our own humanity. Instead of just being consumers or being viewed as a market by producers, we are beginning to, through cooperative economics and collective work, are beginning to leverage our collective power in order to not only see a savings on our food bills, but also to create the mechanism we need to provide food for ourselves.”

 To learn more about the DBCFSN or sign up for the co-op store newsletter, visit: detroitblackfoodsecurity.org

 

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