People’s Food Co-op Manages the Farmers Market in Kalamazoo

picture of a man and woman smiling
Vendors at the Kalamazoo Farmers’ Market.

Last year, People’s Food Cooperative (PFC) in Kalamazoo, Mich., became the operator of our city’s 100-year-old Kalamazoo Farmers’ Market. The city-owned market facilities had been managed by a city staff person until her retirement caused the city to consider outside management. At the city’s invitation, People’s submitted a proposal to lead the market for three years, and the co-op was awarded the contract in January 2013. 

Chris Dilley, PFC’s general manager, led the co-op through a thoughtful and thorough evaluation of this partnership—a process with value for any food co-op considering partnering with a local farmers market. The news that the farmers market could have new management created quite a buzz within our local food community. What an opportunity, a challenge, and an honor! Was it the right move for our co-op? To answer that question, our board, staff, management, and owners needed to take an honest look at PFC—at our operations, our vision for the future, and our capacity for the project.

Community support

The Ends statement for PFC is a powerful tool for making decisions at any level within the co-op, and the Kalamazoo Farmers’ Market (KFM) opportunity was no different. Our first task was to ask, “Does this project advance our Ends?” That is, would assuming operations of the farmers market help the co-op create access to food that is healthy for people, land, and the economy?

Having navigated a complicated store relocation and expansion project in 2011, our board and management knew that this question must be answered by a range of PFC stakeholders who had a variety of identities within the community. We returned to several tactics that had made our expansion project the success that it was: we opened the question to our community and worked hard to listen carefully.

We invited owners to attend our board of directors meetings to give feedback, and we hosted a community meeting that was publicized widely via our social media platforms, weekly email newsletters, print materials, and in-store announcements. During a quarterly all-staff meeting, we set aside time to explain the opportunity and created an open forum to discuss and hear concerns or encouragement. At the same time, Dilley had been visiting the Market every week, talking to as many current market vendors as possible about the idea. 

The feedback from our board, staff, owners, shoppers, and the market vendors, although not without questions and concerns, assured us that the project had broad support. Each of the meetings and conversations also served as a vitally important chance to create alignment around the project. With confidence in the community’s support, the board directed Dilley to move forward. 

Capacity

Dilley’s next step was to lead his management team in exploring the question of capacity. Could we really take on a farmers market with over 70 vendors? We were still reeling from more than a year of breakneck growth after our expansion, and we were tired. Was it the right time to take this on? As a board member who also works on staff at PFC, I can say that the concern about capacity was high. 

On the positive side, PFC is a highly energetic organization. Since 2009, PFC has also operated its own 100-Mile Market, a smaller farmers market selling only goods grown or produced within 100 miles. Many of the vendors that sell at KFM also participated in our 100-Mile Market. We’d also had a presence at KFM, first as a vendor, later by providing EBT (food assistance) benefits access within the market.

With our store expansion project two years behind us, our co-op team felt that we were ready to expand our operations to encompass this larger farmers market. We felt we’d be able to draw a strong pool of candidates for the market manager position we envisioned creating to lead the market. When the decision was shared with the rest of the community, it felt right. 

The right fit?

Believing that operating the market would support our Ends and that we had the capacity to take it on answered only half of the question.  We still needed to know if People’s was the best organization to lead the market. If some other group were a better fit, our Ends (to create access to healthy food) required us to help find and support that other organization.  

We called together existing KFM vendors and other organizations and businesses to discuss the opportunity that the market created. In the end, most others either deferred or declined, and the discussions left us believing we were the right ones for the job. 

Vendors and shoppers had come to know our market management style through their positive experiences at our 100-Mile Market. We’d had a chance to develop strong, trusting relationships with vendors across the community, reassuring both People’s and the vendors. And the 100-Mile Market had given Chris Broadbent, now our Kalamazoo Farmers’ Market manager, a chance to develop his skills in a smaller market. There’s also a broader lessons in this. Leveraging the strength that comes from broad community investment is a strong competitive advantage and can help embolden co-ops, who are typically more risk-averse than corporate grocery retail businesses.

Mutual benefit

Why would a food co-op engage with a farmers market, either as an operator, a vendor, or a provider of food assistance? At the core, it’s all about outreach. It raises the public profile of a co-op to join a project that aligns well with the co-op’s mission to provide and extend the availability of good food. It builds essential relationships, connecting market shoppers to the co-op while also driving traffic to the farmers market from within your member-ownership.

For People’s, partnering with farmers markets addresses gaps in the food system. When we brought in benefits access to the KFM as well as other area markets, it was because we saw a lack of access to good food for lower-income market-goers. When the opportunity to manage the market came up, we again saw that there was a potential for the market to grow in ways that could reach even more of our community, especially those typically marginalized and with reduced access to food. With People’s reputation for quality, and KFM’s food producers and established set of market-goers, it has been a win-win for both organizations. 

New opportunities, new challenges

In our first year, PFC has been deliberate in making changes to the market. We had heard from vendors that their main concern with new management was that too many changes, too quickly, could disrupt the market and impact sales. Again, we saw that vendors needed time to build trust in People’s, to understand that our intentions were to improve the market responsibly and sustainably. 

The most visible change we implemented was to increase transparency by way of asking each vendor to self-identify as a grower. In our feedback from market shoppers, we heard that people wanted to know this information about each vendor, but that the information wasn’t always easily available. 

While not without some conflict, the implementation of signage for each vendor —“Grower,” “Producer,” “Retailer,” or “Artisan,” in both English and Spanish—has been overwhelmingly positive. Some vendors feared a weaker market season due to being given a Retailer label, the assumption being that shoppers would avoid the stands of resellers in their search for foods. In fact, the opposite has been true. The 2013 season showed an increase in sales across the board, with many vendors saying that it had been their best year ever. The trust built through honesty about vendors’ business practices has been rewarded by consumers through increased sales—to the tune of an estimated $2.5 million, up from $1.1 million four years earlier.

Our other focus in improving the market has been in placemaking. This year saw the addition of food trucks and live music, with an intentional effort to create a social atmosphere. The farmers market is now a destination, a place where folks come to spend their Saturdays. As a result, more people visit, more people spend time connecting with vendors in a meaningful way, and of course more money finds its way directly to area food businesses. In 2012, 75 vendors participated in the market at least once during the season, while in 2013 that number increased by over 85 percent to 140 vendors! Such strong growth at KFM has been good for our local and regional food system and the food businesses that sustain it. For People’s, that success has translated into a parallel increase in store sales of 18.7 percent during 2013, in part attributable to our new relationship with KFM. 

We’ve received great press and been given credit for a job well done—and from our perspective, if People’s can contribute to a stronger, more diverse and resilient food system, that’s just one more step toward achieving our Ends. 

See other articles from this issue: 171 March-April 2014