Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Toledo’s Organic Community

The Phoenix Earth Food Co-op celebrates 30 years in business with big changes

In recent decades, small grocers have been disappearing from the American landscape. Increasingly, food deserts – low-income areas where the population lacks access to groceries – have become a serious problem. Chain stores like Kroger and Meijer are often miles away, impacting those with limited transit, while convenience stores offer a limited selection of lower-quality goods at higher prices.

One of the last small grocers standing in Toledo is the Phoenix Earth Food Co-op, which recently celebrated 30 years in business. What’s the secret behind their longevity?

Unique Offerings

No small part of the Phoenix Earth Food Co-op’s ability to survive challenging economic times comes from their use of the cooperative model, which engages shoppers by allowing them to become members with voting rights concerning the store’s direction. Though the store is open to the public, anybody can choose to become a member by purchasing a share for a one-time cost of $72.

Perhaps more important is the Co-op’s dedication to organic and natural food products – a core part of its mission since the Co-op was founded in 1992. While major grocery chains have since capitalized on the growing popularity of organic food, the chains’ commitment is entirely dependent on profit margins. Not so with Phoenix; their commitment is built into the store’s mission.

Big grocers entering the organic market hasn’t been all bad, though. “We’ve gotten away from the perception that organic food is expensive,” says Sean Fitzgerald, general manager. And when Kroger scaled back its organic section recently, the co-op saw an uptick in customers.

One Co-op customer, Michael, has shopped at Phoenix for 15 years and attributes a major turnaround in his health to the co-op and its knowledgeable staff. “I’ve lost at least 40 pounds and changed my life – how I feel, walk and talk — from eating the food here. The people here care about the customers and they care about the customers’ health.” Michael attributes his long lifespan to those changes. “I feel better at 70 than I did at 40. That’s why I shop here and that’s why I’m never going to stop coming (here as a co-op member).”

Beyond organic, the co-op carries a wide selection of plant-based food and specialty items that have earned it a loyal following. Another shopper, Joanna, began shopping at Phoenix about a year ago. “I’m lactose intolerant, and I discovered that I can eat the cheese they carry here. They have it at Kroger’s, too, but the prices here are more reasonable,” she said.

Another popular attraction is the bulk food section. “I really like that I can get stuff in bulk, especially organic peanut butter and flours and grains. I can buy whatever quantity that I want, and I can use my own packaging; I don’t have to use another plastic bag that will be put in the landfill,” explains Gary, a shopper since the co-op’s opening 30 years ago.

The Future

When the co-op turned 30 last year, it coincided with a number of major changes. These included purchasing the building they’ve rented for 30 years from the landlord and buying up the empty lot next door, which they’ve since turned into a community garden.

“There are things we wanted to do for so long – a new floor, a new coat of paint, a mural on the side of the building — but doing those things didn’t make sense before we bought the building,” said general manager Fitzgerald. Members are currently in the process of assembling a capital campaign to fund these endeavors.

The Phoenix Earth Food Co-op is located at 1447 W. Sylvania Avenue and is open 10am-7pm seven days a week.

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