May 6 2009 12:00 AM

Go with the grain: East Lansing Food Co-op offers buying power for local eaters


Eighth in an eight-part series on businesses that are members of Capital Area Local First. For membership information, see

In 1844 in Rochdale, England, a group called the Rochdale Pioneers created the first food cooperative. The group was made up of skilled workers who were sick of the adulterated, overpriced food they were getting at local stores.

So the Pioneers — nearly 30 in all — pooled some money and opened a store. They sold simple things, like flour and sugar, but the benefit was that they were buying and selling the products to each other. Through their example, and success, the model for the modern food cooperative was born.

Speeding forward through history, in 1970 in a garage in East Lansing, a small food-buying club was started. Six years after that, with (much like the Pioneers) 30 owners, the East Lansing Food Co-op opened its first store on Valley Court, near what is now a Biggby Coffee.

Now, with 4,000 owners, a main store in East Lansing, plus operations in the Lansing City Market and the Allen Street Farmers Market, ELFCO embodies the spirit of local buying.

On a recent day inside ELFCO’s main store on Northwind Drive (a little bit up the road from Hobby Lobby) in East Lansing, customers breezed through the store, pushing shopping carts or holding baskets, needling through locally grown, organic produce, Zingerman’s bread and mini grain silos of bulk beans, granola and flour. Over the stereo system acoustic arrangements of Led Zeppelin songs played, giving the store a cool, welcoming vibe.

“It’s an alternative business model,” said Dave Finet, ELFCO’s general manger. “Not with the idea of shareholders cashing in on making money off of products, but with providing access for folks to good food.”

The very idea of a food co-op is so genuinely local it’s practically the definition (in fact, ELFCO was one of the first members of Capital Area Local First when the program began in 2006). The 4,000 owners (a share of the co-op costs $60) are spread throughout the community, and they all have a vote on who gets elected to the board of directors. They also get discounts and can special-order products at a discounted price.

But that doesn’t mean you have to buy a share to shop at ELFCO, because everyone is welcome.

And further, ELFCO does its best to buy locally made or produced products. It’s a bit early in the season, but if you took a stroll over to the produce section, you’d find greens and vegetables grown in places as nearby as the Michigan State University organic farm. Out in front of the store is a rack containing rows of young vegetables and herbs. The plants were started on a local farm, and they can be bought, taken home and planted in your garden so you can have your own produce section. “We don’t see supporting folks and their endeavors as a threat to us,” Finet said.

Strolling through the aisles, Finet showed off other local products: Vita Spelt pasta made down the road in Okemos, Al Dente pasta made near Ann Arbor and a faux Parmesan cheese made of nutritional yeast, sea salt and almonds from South Lyon.

But that’s just the pasta section.

There is granola from Ypsilanti, fresh cut chicken from Otto’s at the Lansing City Market, bratwurst from Apple Schram Orchard in Charlotte, aromatherapy oils from LorAnn Oils in Lansing and even a fair trade Rwandan coffee that’s roasted at Paramount Coffee in Lansing.

But aside from the locally manufactured and grown products at ELFCO, there is a lot for the health conscious or for people with special diets.

Of particular popularity in these economic times has been ELFCO’s bulk food section, Finet said. He pointed to a 2-ounce brand name bottle of cumin for $5.99; ELFCO’s spice bins sell the stuff for $1.28 an ounce.

“We’d rather have a smaller markup but sell more to more people,” he said.

As for the future, Finet said he would like to see ELFCO expand and move into a space that would provide more room for more products, especially local produce. And pretty soon ELFCO may be part of the East Lansing Farmers Market. The co-op has been around for 33 years and has experienced some rough spots, but has bounced back. The store employs 16 and can provide benefits and pay that are better than some larger, boxier stores (that may or may not be near to ELFCO).

Janet Weinstein, who has been working at ELFCO for more than 23 years, said she’s a cog in the workings of a community good. “It’s a place where a lot of people feel comfortable,” she said. “And I fell like, for me, personally, I’m part of a bigger picture.”


4960 Northwind Drive, East Lansing 9 a.m. – 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. - 8 p.m. Sunday (517) 337-1266