Bringing the Farm Downtown: Purple Porch Co-op Cultivates Local Food

By Leong Weng Kuan and Molly Seidel • May 14th, 2017

Cafe Max photo

A Cafe Max cook sets out the Hot Bar’s daily specials (Photo/Molly Seidel)

In the heart of South Bend’s East Race district sits a tiny brick building with a wide-reaching impact. “PURPLE PORCH CO-OP” is spelled out in iron letters over a door through which a constant stream of people flow.

Inside, the small space is packed with shelves of whole foods, vibrant produce and a cozy cafe with smells that waft through the store.

“Knowing that I’m coming here to get some great food and also support the community just makes it more worthwhile,” said Kathleen Darling, a Purple Porch shopper. Darling, a student at Notre Dame, regularly visits the market and cafe to stock up on groceries and enjoy lunch from the salad bar.

The Purple Porch’s local market serves as community center, and the grocery store, cafe, and weekly farmers market provide city-dwellers access to sustainable and local foods right in the heart of urban South Bend.

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Food co-ops have gained popularity around the country as a way for shoppers and producers to become more involved in their food choices.

And Purple Porch is no exception. The market is community-owned, democratically run, and has given shoppers a more transparent, sustainable and local grocery experience.

About 10 years ago, the co-op began as a weekly farmers market that brought together Michiana farmers with South Bend consumers. The goal was to combat a lack of fresh, locally-sourced foods within the city.

Over time the market grew, and by 2009 the member-owners of the co-op decided to rent space at Lang Lab on High Street, which houses up-and-coming business ventures in the city. An explosion of popularity after this move allowed the co-op to eventually buy their own building on Hill Street, which today contains the market/cafe and operates seven days a week.

Despite the growth, employees say the Purple Porch still retains the core values on which it was founded: local, sustainable, and transparent. The market specializes in locally grown and organic products from daily fresh produce to personal care items, and operates business with local farmers and producers between a 60-mile radius (local) to a 400-mile radius (regional) around South Bend.

360 photo: Inside the co-op

Inside of store – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA

Why Choose Local?

While the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines local as a 400-mile radius, Purple Porch Co-op focuses heavily on products grown and produced within a 60-mile radius around South Bend.

“While this is somewhat flexible, we pride ourselves in our commitment to keeping the food miles to a minimum,” said Myles Robinson, front operations manager at the market. “That way the food being produced is more sustainable… and it helps people to have a connection to the things they’re eating.”

Dr. Susan Blum, a professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, said she has a strong passion for local food and the Purple Porch.

“Buying and eating foods that have been produced locally is tangible ways to make a difference in society’s broken systems,” she said, “and the Purple Porch is instrumental for that in South Bend.”

By supporting neighbors, mitigating unequal economies, and bringing wonderful food to people who would otherwise not have access, she said she believes that co-ops such as the Purple Porch serve as epicenters of positive community change.

Blum served for almost five years on the board of the Purple Porch Co-op, acting as president, vice president and secretary. She described the co-op as the “thing she thought about the most for several years.”

She was instrumental in structuring the co-op’s founding principles of sustainability, local sourcing, community involvement and transparent production.

“Purple Porch Co-op is a force for good in the community,” Blum said of the co-op. “And the food, when it is sustainable- and locally-produced like it is here, is truly delicious.”

Wednesday Farmers Market

The Purple Porch has grown significantly over the past several years, yet it continues to host the farmer’s market on a weekly basis every Wednesday. From Spring through Fall, local farmers and producers load up their trucks, drive the short distance to the co-op and set up tents in the parking lot. Local shoppers can browse the variety of fresh goods, as well as order online ahead of time to pick up their goods direct from the vendors.

The cooperation agreement indicates that Purple Porch only collects a 10 percent surcharge on all sales at the Wednesday market, giving local farmers a wider platform to sell their products and make a profit. Purple Porch Co-op aims to encourage communications between buyers and sellers and to support local food production.

“Local means knowing the people that you work with and being able to advocate for farmers… to help them grow their business,” Robinson said.

According to the farmer’s market policy, customers can meet and interact with local producers, so that consumers can better understand the growing process and where their food is coming from.

The online order services provided by Purple Porch Co-op helps local farmers to save time and budgets for knowing the amount of products that they should bring to the market. Market sellers are producing their food within a 60-mile radius of South Bend, which guarantees the food quality.

Creating an Oasis in a Food Desert

A “food desert” is defined as a low-income urban area that lacks access to grocery stores or healthy food options. For many living in these areas, supermarkets are often several miles away, restricting options to unhealthy fast food or convenience stores.

Dr. John Brett, a professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado-Denver, recently finished research that examines the reason why the Park Hill neighborhood in Denver — one of the city’s wealthiest areas — has some of the highest rates of food insecurity.

“The key is not about convincing the community to let us come in, but is about to accepting the community as partners,” Brett said.

He stressed the need for “experts” in the field to listen to the life stories and experience of people living within food deserts. Greater understanding and compassion for the individuals affected by this crisis is crucial for treating the problem in the first place.

“Park Hill qualifies as a food desert, but now many people reconsider it as a ‘Food Swamp’ — there are lots of food but they’re not quality food.” he said, “Although there are convenience stores that you can get beers, cigarettes and lottery tickets, not fresh vegetables and meat.”

He said that enhancing the already existed resources is the easiest way to make a change in a food desert, for instance, trying to get funding to add fresh food items in convenience stores.

Food insecurity is essentially a systematic and ethnic problem, experts say.

“What we come down to is not a matter of lacking food access, but an inequity that created the lack of access, the reason of food insecurity is embedded in its historically determined and socially structured inequalities…the historical reason is predominantly African American becoming Latino neighborhood,” Brett said. “It’s a red line here – if you are non-whites, you can’t buy house there. It’s institutionalized, it’s not a problem of access to be fixed, it’s a system to be changed.”

Brett offered an example of how food access matters on elderly.

“If a 75-year-old man does not drive but take him two buses lines in hours and hours to reach a supermarket,” he said, “… in this case, the old man is geographically accessible to the supermarket, but socially, he can’t.” that’s what the food access problem is happening in Park Hill and that’s why local food is the remedy in any food desert.”

Purple Porch Co-op by Slidely Slideshow