Building the Free Range Food Co-op in Grand Rapids

Nov 26, 2018

Annaliesa McCartney and Sarah Verke are board members and volunteers who are helping build the new Free Range Food Co-op in Grand Rapids. They recently joined Maggie Montgomery and Katie Carter on Northern Community Radio’s Morning Show to talk about the co-op and give an update on the community’s progress.

The idea to build a new food co-op in Grand Rapids was born in October 2015, with a small group gathered around a kitchen table. “We met for about 6 months, recruiting other interested people” explained Sarah Verke, “and had our first community meeting in March of 2016 at the library. We had over 120 people there. So that’s where we signed up our first 20 owners and decided there was enough community support to keep going.”

Annaliesa McCartney became involved after learning how a co-op in Bemidji helped support her son’s vegan lifestyle while he was a student at Bemidji State University. She attended that first meeting in March. “At that time I truly didn’t even understand what a co-op was all about.  My son moved to Bemidji and started attended attending BSU. I went to visit him and he said, ‘Mom, you have to check out this food co-op in Bemidji. It’s called Harmony. It’s the greatest thing ever.’ …He brought me there, showed me the store, explained that they have cooking classes—so my college student was learning to cook vegan food, without me!”

Sarah Verke added, “I am really just passionate about healthy food! I want to be able to feed my family organic, local, fresh food that has a lot of nutrition in it. The other part is the community and the challenge. We’re doing this as volunteers, and it’s up to us to build this food co-op. No one’s going to come in and save us and do it for us. I’m attracted by that community effort and the grassroots part of it.”

After three years of organizing, Sarah reports that the process has been hard but the group has help. “It’s like a puzzle. There’s different pieces to it. We have a timeline and we have mentors; we have resources. So we’re not alone. We always have someone on speed dial that we can call and ask for help. We’ve got attorneys, we’ve got Stuart Reed from Food Co-op Initiative who’s our mentor. We’ve reached out to Colleen from Harmony, we’ve reached out to Anya from Natural Harvest. We’ve got Mickey Pearson who’s a board member at Whole Foods and he has done some board mentorship for us and he’s been at some of our events to come speak to our owners.”

Annaliesa explained the vision for the new co-op: “We have a market study that indicates our food co-op should be here in Grand Rapids, specifically on Highway 2 or Highway 169 so that it’s really visible. According to the market study at least 50% of our business will be people that are just driving by and see that ‘Oh, Grand Rapids has a food co-op. I’m going to swing in because I know what food co-ops are and I really like shopping at them.’ I also foresee it being a culture of pay it forward, where when you shop at your co-op you know that that money stays within your community and you know that it is for a positive impact on the community economically and for building up better access to local food, which is very important for this area.”

Sarah added that “Co-ops used to be maybe a couple barrels of flour and oats and people could come and pick up that bulk item that they were looking for. Now our market study indicates that our store could probably support our community with a 6,000-7,000 square foot store with some storage and warehouse and offices. So it would be about 4,000 square feet for shopping area. We would love to be able to have a deli—our market study indicates that our community would support that as well. It’s really important to us to be able to go grab a lunch or organic salad right here in Grand Rapids…It is a lot bigger than what was started back in the ‘70s, and that’s why it’s important to do that market study to determine what your community can support.”

Food co-ops are structurally based on membership. Sarah Verke explains: “Everyone who becomes a member and essentially purchases shares becomes an equal owner. Right now we have 616 people in Itasca County, and some from the wider area—across the country—have chosen to join our food co-op. They’ve paid $100, and that equals purchasing four shares. One of those shares is your ownership share and your voting share. There’s a statute that governs co-ops in Minnesota that lays out how we’re formed. So it is true that everybody who invests in the co-op and becomes an owner really is an owner. That’s what we’re doing now, we’re building the co-op, but we’re also building ownership so we can determine the support that’s here, but also so we can become stronger.”

“When we first started this we started working with Food Co-op Initiative, and they really lay it out for the projected owners that we should have by the time that we’re open, and for us that’s 1,000-1,200. So about 1,200 owners is where we should be when we open the store. There’s a few different reasons for that—that gives us a set number of people who we would assume are going to shop there, but that’s also what lenders are going to be looking at when we get to the point where we need to raise the remaining funds to actually open the store. They’re going to want to know that we have community support.”

Sarah and Annaliesa hope the store might be built next summer, “but it probably won’t happen that quickly. A lot of things hinge on how quickly we can get to that 1,200 owners. The biggest thing right now that we’re working on is building a really strong board of directors. We have 5 board members now. We need to maybe get to 7 or 8 board members. We also are in the process of ramping up to hire our first employee, which we’re very excited about. We’re going to have an outreach coordinator that’s going to really help corral all of our awesome strong volunteers within our community so that the board can get back to really hard work hiring a general manger, finding our location, and planning a really strong capital campaign.”

For more information, check out the co-op’s website or their Facebook page. The interview with Sarah Verke and Annaliesa McCartney is below.