BY LORI ACKEN | PHOTOS BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
Outpost Director of Community Relations Margaret Mittelstadt at the Mequon location
Credit a blizzard for Outpost Natural Food Cooperative’s most successful community-giving effort.
In 1999, knowing its mission and civic-minded customer base well, the then 29-year-old, single-store grocery co-op launched a traditional food donation campaign (think big cardboard boxes and lots of cans). And on the day the items were to be distributed to local food pantries and shelters, Mother Nature threw in her two cents.
“It was really difficult to do the good deed,” laughs Outpost’s Director of Community Relations Margaret Mittelstadt of Buy a Bag’s inauspicious launch. “Once we did it, it was fine. But it was like, ‘OK, we have to rethink this and how we can make this a better process so we can reach more people.’ Someone said, ‘How about we partner with somebody who already does that kind of work?’ And that’s when we aligned with Hunger Task Force.”
“It’s all customer driven,” adds Mittelstadt of Buy a Bag. “We don’t retain a cent of the contributions that come in. We turn it over, and 100 percent is used to buy food and support Hunger Task Force. We want it to be all about them. We want to just be the intermediary.”
The endeavor distributes Outpost’s signature fresh, local and Fair Trade organic products to deserving families and organizations throughout the area. It set in motion two decades of ambitious partnerships with the co-op’s devoted customers, nonprofits and businesses to provide nutritious organic food to all Milwaukeeans and support the folks who produce it.
Five years after the launch of “Buy a Bag,” the “Think Outside the Lunchbox” program was created to address summertime hunger issues for the vast number of metro Milwaukee children who rely on school nutrition programs for their primary meals. In 2016, Outpost bowed “Milk Money,” a voucher program designed to make the valuable source of protein and other vital nutrients readily available to underserved populations (see opposite page).
In 2019, Outpost will reorganize its give-back efforts into a three-pronged mission that lends additional aid to farmers, the beating heart of creating, preserving and maintaining nutritious food supplies. Mittelstadt says the first arm retains Outpost’s highly successful partnership with Hunger Task Force to ease the Milwaukee region’s hunger and nutrition crises. The second turns an eye toward preserving cooperative development in an era of megastores and online food-delivery services.
“Because we’re a co-op and we obviously support that business structure, we will be working with Twin Pines Cooperative Foundation to literally just do a direct contribution to them to support cooperative development across the United States,” says Mittelstadt, noting Outpost’s own four-location, multi-county reach. “We’re growing strong. But the grocery market is pretty saturated. We’ve got national chains coming in and we have some stores that are transitioning out, so there’s a lot of flux … that can really put pressure on the local retailer to try to stay afloat. We look at that local retail scene as contributing the heart and soul of the community. We all need to be a little more aware that, yeah, we can talk to our smart speaker and have it order whatever it is that we need, but can we bring that relationship back and invest back in our community?”
A crucial third arm entails working with farmers, scientists and other experts on sustainability and sustainable agriculture. Though the initiative is still a work in progress, Mittelstadt says, “We’ll work with one partnership to really support what they’re doing and then, in turn, bring them in and have them provide education to our customers about sustainable ag and why it’s important. Along with that will come a grant that we will provide for them.”
Mittelstadt cites Spring Valley’s Midwest Organic Sustainable Education Services and East Troy’s Michael Fields Agricultural Institute as area partners already actively involved in the mission to train current and future farmers in scalable, manageable organic agriculture methods and to serve as watchdogs to keep organic standards in place on a national level.
“They often work with conventional farmers that are looking to transition [to organic farming], and they’re also working with up-and-coming farmers,” she explains.
The average farmer is nearing retirement age, many without a future generation willing to take over the farm, which, Mittelstadt says, forces a dependency on other parts of the nation and the world for fresh, organic food. “If we can support the farmer who can grow it close to home and we have a stronger relationship with those farms, we are less food insecure,” she says.
“Our biggest organic supplier of food locally is Tipi Produce out of Evansville, Wisconsin. They have this amazingly beautiful, organic farm. And JenEhr [Family Farm], which is outside of Madison,” Mittelstadt continues. “They’re just these beautiful tapestries of food — different shapes, varieties, how the land is laid out. It’s so incredible, and if those farms go away, we’re in trouble. So, we’re always looking to nurture and support that local farmer to bring product in.”
And she’s not just talking about the rural guys. Mittelstadt says Outpost is also working with a group of local urban farmers to potentially form an urban farm cooperative, “so that they can collectively aggregate their buying power around their products.”
“In fiscal ’17, we did a little over 48 million dollars in sales overall,” Mittelstadt says. “About 42 percent of that, around $22 million, actually went to local farmers and local producers. That’s our commitment, and when we can help them succeed, they will carry that legacy forward. They can earn a decent living doing what they’re doing. … If we’re looking at having a secure future, I think we have to look at where our food is going to come from, first and foremost.”
That’s nothing new for Outpost, which began as the East Kane Street Food Co-op and charged its members $2.50 a share.
“We’ve supported organic agriculture since the beginning,” Mittelstadt smiles.
“We started in 1970, before there even was a national program that’s highly regulated and highly enforced and you have to be compliant or you’re out. So, those are the kinds of organizations that we’re looking at, that have the capacity to have strong impact in our industry but have a local flare, as well. We want to make sure that local is still lifted up in the process.”
How You Can Help
You already know that shopping at Outpost does good things for your and your family members’ wellbeing. Add a few bucks to your bill or a few items to your basket and you’ll also give back to the community via these vital partnerships with Hunger Task Force.
Buy A Bag Program
Runs: Nov. 1 to Dec. 1
2017 donations: $180,000
Donations to date: $1.2 million
Outpost’s long-running collaboration is a 19-year partnership with Hunger Task Force. For every $20 customer donation, Outpost assembles $40 worth of healthy, organic foods — including fresh, seasonal produce — that is distributed by Hunger Task Force to more than 80 different food pantries, emergency food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters across Milwaukee and into southeastern Wisconsin.
Think Outside the Lunchbox
Runs: June 1 to Aug. 31
2018 donations: More than $10,000 and nearly 4,000 pounds of food
Launched in 2003, this hunger-awareness campaign sheds light on the fact that nearly 40 percent of Milwaukee residents living below the poverty level are children who rely on school-based meal programs for consistent meals and proper nutrition. To help keep kids from going hungry in the summer, Outpost combines customers’ cash contributions with their donations of nutritious, kid-friendly foods like peanut butter, granola bars and fruit snacks.
Launched in 2016, Outpost’s year-round collaboration with Hunger Task Force was born of the latter’s struggle to provide fresh milk to vulnerable populations like senior citizens and families with growing children. Without the means to store and efficiently distribute dairy products, the Task Force partnered with Outpost to turn $4 customer contributions into vouchers that families and food pantries exchange for a gallon of fresh, recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH)-free, locally sourced milk from Sassy Cow Creamery or organic soymilk from Wildwood. MKE