Our Milwaukee: Outpost Natural Foods

by Catherine Jozwik, photos by Jan Christensen   What began as the East Kane Street Food Co-op  in 1970, a small store completely owned and staffed  by volunteers, became Outpost Natural Foods,  Milwaukee’s main place to buy local, organic foods and  other goods. With three store locations in Riverwest,  Bay View, and Wauwatosa, Outpost has thrived and  become an important community fixture.        Margaret Mittelstadt, Outpost director of  communications, has some ideas about the importance  of buying locally and how local commerce has a  positive impact on the community.   What are some advantages to buying locally?   When you buy local, most of your money stays in  the community because we buy from local vendors.  Managers of local stores have a lot more flexibility  in offering greater diversity in products because  unlike corporations, no one is telling them what to  buy. This diversity also helps build character in the  community. And since Outpost is a co-op – owned  by the community – with about 14,000 members,  many of whom live in the area, it’s very democratic.  People have a say in what happens and what’s being  sold at Outpost. The people on the board also live in  the community, unlike other companies  where board members live miles away.   Another advantage to buying locally is  greater food security, which is an issue  these days. People want to be assured  that their food is safe. The chances of  getting a food-borne illness from a local  vendor is almost zero.   With a local business, you can go to the  doorstep if you have a problem, but if  factory workers are rushed and animals  aren’t treated all that well on farms, food  contamination is more likely to happen.   Which local vendors does Outpost buy  from?   We buy from over 100 different vendors,  from produce to meat. Sprecher, Stone’s  Throw Winery, Sassy Cow, to name a few.  Sugar River Dairy has the best yogurt!  We’ve been buying from some vendors  for awhile, like Simple Soyman. We’ve  been buying tofu and soy spreads  from them since the 1970s. We get our  breads and bakery from the Wild Flour  Bakery in Bay View and La Campagna,  and we just started selling a line of  100% grass-fed Wisconsin-raised beef  in a cooperative effort to support local  farmers. Products with stickers with a  little red barn on them symbolize that  they are from Wisconsin or the Great  Lakes region.   How does Outpost positively affect the  Riverwest community?   The people of Outpost understand its  community’s needs, especially the pain  of the economic recession. Finding a  place to feel secure in tough times is  really important. Outpost is really a  throwback to the days of Mom and  Pop stores, but we’re seeing it through a  different lens by maintaining that broad  sense of camaraderie that comes along  with shopping locally yet offering a great  selection.   From September 1-15, 2009, we will  be partnering up with four local  organizations – the Urban Ecology  Center, Fondy Food Center, Slow Food  Wisconsin, and Friends of Real Food  for the Eat Local Challenge, an effort to  get people to shop for and eat as much  local foods as they can. The goal of the  challenge is to shift the focus to what  happens locally, and how your dollars  affect the community. More information  will be in the Exchange magazine and on  our website, outpostnaturalfoods.coop   ED. NOTE: Like most cooperatives,  Outpost honors memberships in other  co-ops. If you have a membership at the  Riverwest Co-op, be sure to mention it  when you check out at the Outpost.