Friday, May 19, 2000

Their activism is only natural

Their activism is only natural
The Ann Arbor News
By Pamela Appea

Corinne Sikorski, general manager at the Ypsilanti Food Co-op doesn’t consider herself an in-your-face kind of activist.

At the same time, you could say that Sikorski—and other members of the co-op—are definitely politically involved citizens. Sikorski said she and others practice a low key but effective kind of activism.

The co-op on North River Street in Depot Town isn’t just a place to get high-quality organic spinach, tofu helper or granola mix. It also serves as a place to learn the buzz about what’s going on in the political work of food and agriculture, said Heather Nobriga, a co-op employee for the past several years.

The Ypsilanti Food Co-op, which is celebrating its 25th birthday this weekend, has come a long way sine a small group of people—many who were Eastern Michigan University student at the time—were allotted a bag of available produce each week for $3 in the mid-1970s.

The community feel of the store and the concern that members have for the community and grassroots organizing has remained the same throughout the years, Sikorski said. For the past 25 years, she has been a volunteer, member and then full-time employee for the co-op.

The co-op has grown and now has nearly 2,000 lifetime members and 600-1,000 customers who frequent the store, Sikorski said. Not only has the co-op expanded but the seven-person board has worked to repair the store’s interior. In recent years, Sikorski said they’ve also added new products including ready-made healthy frozen meals.

Sikorski said she finds that once people learn about the co-op they want to learn more about organic food and laws that regulate food, fruits and vegetables and coffee.

For example, customers who frequent the co-op can learn about fair trade for coffee farmers in Central and South America through brochures in the store. These fair-trade companies and cooperatives deal directly with the farmer cutting out the middleman—known to farmers as ‘coyotes,’ who often take and keep the profit for themselves, Sikorski said.

The Ypsilanti Co-op does it business with cooperatives that believe in fair trade an exchange, maximizing the chance that the farmers will benefit from their crops, Sikorski said.

“It’s this kind of activism—on the grassroots level—that helps people become more aware, Nobriga said.

“By having good food—it doesn’t necessarily sell itself—but people try it and realize it is a better product,” Sikorski said.

At the register, customers usually can find a petition on genetically engineered food or another hot-topic food issue when they ring up their purchases. There’s no pressure to sign or not to sign but many co-op members see first-hand that their signatures and grassroots organizing does make a difference, store employees said.

In a recent national effort, Ypsilanti community co-op members played their part in the U.S. Agricultural Department regulations of organic food, Sikorski said.

In 1997, after 10 years of consideration of what is a proper organic product, the Agricultural Department’s guidelines were still not quite right, Sikorski explained. So around that time, 300,000 critics across the country wrote the federal agency objecting to the department putting the “organic” label on foods grown from genetically modified seeds, treated by disease-killing irradiation and fertilized by sewage sludge.

In 1999, the Agricultural Department reviewed the complaints and revised the original guidelines, sin Sikorski said. Now USDA Organic will really mean organic, she said.

“We have a voice,” Sikorski said of Ypsilanti Food Co-op members and the small but important role they played in that issue.

On a local level, the co-op’s main purpose from its inception remains the same—to provide nutritious and organic food options to people in their community, Sikorski said.

This month as part of the store’s promotional May Membership Madness month purchasing a lifetime membership is half of—only $5. Joining is easy, Sikorski said. A $10 non-refundable fee gives a person a lifetime membership, ownership of the store, shopping discounts and voting privileges for board-member elections.

As for Sikorski co-op work might not be exactly what she set out to do as an EMU student in the 1970s, but now she can’t see herself doing anything else.

Saturday Events
The Ypsilanti Food Co-op will hold a pizza bake-off at noon Saturday. Open to everyone; no entry fee or registration required. Just show up with your pre-made, pre-baked pizza in hand. Bring your recipe(s) to share. Pizza will be judged in the following categories” quickest, most nutritious, dessert, cheapest, alternative and gourmet.

The co-op will also hold a general membership meeting along with a Mystery Theatre. The event begins at 6 p.m. at the farmer’s market (The Freight House.) Everyone is welcome to attend. Bring a vegetarian potluck dish to pass or pay $5 admission at the door. For more information, call (734) 483-1520.

Photo Credit: Elli Gurfinkel
Photo Caption: Ypsilanti Food Cooperative regulars Bonny, left, and Carroll Osborn of Ypsilanti check out the bulk-food section in the Depot Town store. Cooperative employees says its main goal is to provide nutritious food for the community.

Originally published Friday, May 19, 2000