Growing Local Roots

Kalamazoo Embraces a Healthy Alternative
By: Bryan E. Paas

Kalamazoo health food stores are thriving in a community devoted to supporting local and healthy alternatives.

Two of the biggest Michigan grocery chains, Spartan Stores and Meijer, have begun to advertise locally grown products.

To show their customers the local connection, these stores have branded local foods with the names Michigan’s Best and Select Michigan.

While this may seem like a new trend to consumers who frequent these larger grocery stores, local food
stores in Kalamazoo have been doing this local branding for years.


Alternative grocery stores, like the Natural Health Center, have been providing locals with fresh alternatives since the early 1970s.  


In the 1970s, Mike Wunderling saw there were no stores providing organic or locally grown alternatives for the needs of people looking for locally grown food and organic and healthy alternatives.  In 1971 he opened the Natural Health Center for that very reason.

“The one thing about the natural food shoppers is that they are really into buying local and they are really looking at what they are purchasing and what they are putting into their families mouths,” said Natural Health Center Manager Kate Wunderlin.

“We have higher concentration of people coming into natural food stores than traditional food stores looking to buy local.”


 While not comparable in size and selection of products to the Spartan Stores and to Meijer, it is competitive with the two local grocery chains in the local food they offer.

We have a larger percentage of products in the store than anybody in town that is sourced locally,” said Chris Dilley, manager at People’s Food Co-op of Kalamazoo.

Our percentages of products in the store that are local absolutely are going to be far and away greater than in Meijer or Spartan Stores because really the volume they have in their store the size of their stores makes it really challenging to compete with us in percentage,” he said.


Dilley said the People's Food Co-op of Kalamazoo has participated in student based studies to show the amount of locally grown products that are sold in stores.  People's Food Co-op of Kalamazoo was in the 20 percent category, which is virtually unheard of among grocery stores.

Last year 21percent of our purchases were from local farms or local processors, other stores don’t even come close to that,” Dilley said.


 While the majority of consumers at the People's Food Co-op and the Natural Health Food Center are adults, according to Dilley and Wunderlin, they are not the only people who are seeing the positive effects of buying local. College students are starting to focus on what they buy and where it comes from.

Melanie Brower, a sophomore at Western Michigan University, said she buys local whenever she has the opportunity.

“I like to buy locally grown products because they are fresher and you know where the food is coming from,” Brower said. “I think more people are starting to eat healthier, but for most college students I think it’s the fact that the health food products are more expensive and that’s what scares people away.”

Health has become a major concern with obesity rates on the rise in the United States and this is one reason that David Fuller, a student at WMU majoring in exercise science, attributes the trend of buying local being on the rise.

“There are a lot of studies being conducted on the affects of foods that have been laced with preservatives," Fuller said. “Some of these studies may take 50 or so years to complete, while they wait for people that have eaten food with preservatives for the majority of their lives to die so they can see whether or not preservatives were a factor," Fuller said.  "Rather than wait people are starting to look to locally grown and organic foods as an alternative. Plus they know what their getting along with helping out their local economy.”

When it comes to the trend of locally grown and health conscious foods, Kalamazoo is one of the few communities that has stores providing locally grown and organic foods, Wunderlin said.

“Kalamazoo is pretty lucky.  If you look at any other cities in Michigan, other than Ann Arbor and Traverse City who have great co-ops, the only problem they have is that they don’t have as many health food stores as Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo,” Wunderlin said.