Fifty years of food: Kent Co-op feeds the community

By Derek Kreider, general assignment reporter

Photos by Derek Kreider

Fifty years since their inception, Kent Natural Foods is still supplying Tree City residents with affordable, locally sourced food.

Long time co-op member and volunteer Jeff Ingram is excited to be celebrating the store’s 50th anniversary.

“It’s super exciting because the store has grown [in] those 50 years,” says Ingram, who’s been with the co-op since 1992, “and we’re still able to provide healthy food for the community.”

Opened in 1971 as a part of the Kent Community Project— a reaction to the murder of four Kent State students by the National Guard, according to Ingram — the co-op used to be a much smaller operation.

What’s now Kent Natural Foods co-op received help from the dozen people running a separately organized community store, though both the store and the co-op belonged to the Kent Community Project, according to a 1971 article by Bill Lazarus in the Daily Kent Stater.

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In lieu of selling from their own location, they distributed their goods at a coffee shop across from campus called the Needle’s Eye for no more than they paid for it.

Now, in 2021, the co-op has its own location and a much larger membership base. Ingram says there are currently around 2,000 members. Only some of them work at Kent Natural Foods.

“Volunteer-wise,” Ingram says, “it ranges between 10 and 20.”

Ingram sees this era of the co-op as a time rife with possibility.

“In this day and age,” he says, “there’s so many more opportunities to expand into the community coming online.” Local farmers shifting to sustainable farming practices gives them options, for example.

“We have a list of like five or six just local organic farmers that we can deal with, and that’s just great as far as creating a local economy,” says Ingram.

In the beginning, the operation was more like a buying club, Ingram says. The workers at the store would take orders from people and fill them. “They would run up to the produce terminal in Cleveland on a weekly basis…and go pick up produce and bring it back here for distribution in Kent,” Ingram says.

In a stark contrast to the past, the co-op can now obtain speciality products on behalf of their shoppers. “If they have a special dietary need…we can get it for you,” says Ingram.

In 1979, a group of workers got together with the idea of incorporating, and the modern version of Kent Natural Foods was born before briefly transitioning to a for-profit organization.

When the venture began to fail in 1991, Hal Walker, one of the workers at the store, urged a restructuring of the store back to a co-op before it was too late. They took his advice and by the following year transitioned back to the original model.

“The people that were taking it over,” Ingram says, “were meeting right next door to where I was living on Lake Street, and we started to have regular meetings at their house.”Tracy Park Staam discovered the co-op while she was a student at Kent State University in the ’70s. Curiosity got her in the door, and when the co-op moved to its current location, she discovered something to keep her coming back.

“I found out that they have great spices and grains,” Park Staam says “I always come back for those.”

Kathy Wilen, another long time member, remembers the early days of the co-op as being much more disorganized. “It wasn’t consistent as to what they would have for sale,” she says.

“It started out as kind of a real ’70s hippy dive at first,” Park Staam says, describing it as “grungy.”

She’s enjoyed watching the store grow and change over the years. “It’s gotten larger, and it’s gotten neater and more organized,” with a greater selection of products, she says. “I’m glad it’s around. I’d feel sad if it ever left town.”

Both Wilen and Park Staam recommend the store to others.

“I always find something interesting that I really needed when I go in there,” Park Staam says.

Wilen appreciates the environmentally friendly options at Kent Natural Foods, as well as the knowledge that the food she’s buying is fresh.

Membership comes with significant benefits. A 5% discount is automatically applied to everything in the store. Bulk purchases are available for wholesale cost plus 25%, “so it’s really a great deal if you’re buying bulk or volume,” Ingram says.

Combining membership with volunteer work nets even better deals. Every hour spent working at the co-op equals another 2% discount, up to 25% per month.

Ingram has a number of things he hopes to see developed in the next 50 years of the co-op. For one, it’s been a dream to incorporate a vegetarian “healthy kitchen” into Kent Natural Food’s model. Despite local restaurants offering health conscious options, there isn’t one dedicated to serving locally sourced produce, according to Ingram. He hopes that one day the co-op’s healthy kitchen will fill that need in Kent.

More community potlucks, cooking classes and additional involvement from local farmers with the co-op are on Ingram’s wishlist as well.

“Maybe even a co-operative farm,” Ingram says, “where we’re able to get enough volunteers to work the farm,” stocking the store with the produce they harvest.

The spirit of collaboration that carried the co-op through its first 50 years will need to echo through its next 50 years if it’s to continue, and Ingram encourages anyone who’s interested to get involved.

“We’re always open to new ideas, and meeting new producers and farmers, even if it’s just a local greenhouse,” Ingram says. “Love to meet you, and get you to participate in our community as well.”