Outpost Natural Foods: Community Owned, Community SupportedOct 01, 2011 01:43PM ● By Beth Davis
A lot was happening in our country, and in Milwaukee, in 1970. Specifically, it was a time of great unrest for our farms and our food. Big business was pushing out the family farmers, and the use of agricultural chemicals was becoming more common in our fields and on our food. Local grocery stores were closing, due to the influx of large supermarket chains.
A group of concerned Milwaukee residents were looking for ways to purchase clean, wholesome and healthy food. They pooled their interest and their money into a cooperative business structure and, in April 1970, formed the East Kane Street Food Co-op—now known as Outpost Natural Foods. Over the years, the co-op survived and thrived, changing locations numerous times and adding new ones. Through it all, owners continued to put their faith, trust, equity and patronage into Outpost. Today it boasts nearly 16,000 owners.
According to Margaret Mittelstadt, director of community relations, Outpost Natural Foods Cooperative exists so that owners have a healthy, diverse and sustainable community. By definition, a co-op is a kind of business that operates for the benefit of its co-owners, and unlike corporately owned businesses that make decisions primarily to maximize profits; co-ops make decisions to maximize services to their owners and their community.
“It’s a democratically run organization and it’s equal opportunity ownership—everyone pays the same amount,” she explains. A full share at Outpost is $200. Mittelstadt says they recognize that not everyone can pay that amount upfront; therefore, people can join at the lowest rate of $25 per year and build their equity over time. No matter which way one decides to pay, benefits start once a payment is made.
Benefits of ownership include the opportunity to vote for the board of directors; member-only deals on select local artisan lines and from Outpost’s signature fresh departments; early bird coupons and rewards; owner appreciation days; special enrollment prices for all Outpost sponsored workshops; free nutrition consultations; 10 percent discounts on preordered bulk or case items; and patronage rebates—money back to its owners in profitable fiscal years. “The more you shop, the larger your dividend,” explains Mittelstadt. She says it is important to note that anyone can shop at Outpost, not just its owners.
The three Outpost stores offer unique and fun shopping experiences, bursting with fresh foods and hard-to-find items. Because it is becoming more and more difficult to know where food comes from, all of the products at Outpost Natural Foods are chosen based on a set of simple guidelines. For example, poultry, dairy and meat selections come from animals that have been humanely raised and seafood has been sustainably harvested, wild caught or farmed in ecologically sound ways; foods sourced from either Wisconsin or the Great Lakes region are indicated by a "Local/Regional" tag; Fair Trade certified products and USDA-certified organic products can be found throughout the store; and no foods contain artificial colors, flavors, preservatives or artificial sweeteners.
In addition to offering healthy food choices, Outpost is committed to providing educational services and resources to enhance consumers' awareness and help them make informed choices. “We provide full disclosure about the products we sell and why we sell them,” explains Mittelstadt. “We give information about important upcoming legislation, information about seasonal foods and even hold a variety of cooking workshops each month that make cooking fun, easy and accessible.”
Since its inception over 40 years ago, Outpost has worked to help build the community through sponsorships, food donations and grassroots partnerships. “Giving back is an important part of our cooperative,” notes Mittelstadt. “We support many organizations in the Metro Milwaukee area through food or cash donations, even hosting events.”
Since 1994, the cooperative has also been donating a monthly contribution to local nonprofit organizations. Called Community Wednesdays, qualifying organizations are featured on a ballot and Outpost owners vote for which groups they would like to see receive donations. Selected groups receive a $1,000 donation from Outpost, in addition to donations contributed by shoppers when they check out. Representatives of the chosen groups are invited to speak at the co-op about what they do for the community on their designated Wednesday.
Outpost Natural Foods has come a long way since it started, but some things remain the same—its commitment to being a locally owned grocer with wholesome and natural foods, its commitment to the community and its commitment to sustainability.
Outpost Natural Foods has three locations, including 100 E. Capitol Dr., Milwaukee 53212; 2826 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., Bay View 53207; and 7000 W. State St., Wauwatosa 53213. For more information, call 414-431-3377 or visit Outpost.coop.