Chris Dilley was a graphic designer with the heart of an anthropologist, when his favorite grocery store, the People’s Food Co-op, asked him to work on their newsletter.
He couldn’t imagine where The Co-op Scoop would lead to 25 years later.
“Yeah, I didn’t think, ‘I’ll lay out the newsletter — then I’m going to re-envision the food landscape in Kalamazoo,’” Dilley, 52, said with a laugh.
He’s spent the past 20 years as PFC’s general manager.
“I learned to be a grocer but my passion and what drew me into the job was the food and community connection and the idea of how do we build a local food system that thrives and that supports local farmers and local eaters.”
Next up, he is joining Columinate, a national co-operative consulting firm.
He leaves behind not only a co-op store that is five times as big as the one he started volunteering in, but initiatives that include a remodeled and expanded farmer’s market, a thriving organization that helps new food entrepreneurs launch their products, and community work centered around addressing food inequities.
But true to his cooperative spirit, Dilley doesn’t claim these efforts as his alone.
“I feel invested in the way things are now, but really I think the thing that I have brought is the commitment to being here and learning what needs to be learned to support it growing into this,” he said.
Food Plus Community
Dilley grew up in New England and graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in linguistic anthropology with a certificate in Chinese studies.
He spent a few years traveling between Kalamazoo and China, where he taught language and humanities. It was a good experience, but he didn’t love teaching. Eventually, he settled in Kalamazoo and took a job as a graphic designer with his friend Peter Brakeman in the McNair Building, just down the street from the co-op. He was drawn to the co-op from the start.
“I had been living in China and I got very interested in food and how food systems work,” Dilley said. “The question I got interested in was about food and farming and how they are connected to the store and access to that — how there was a lot of unequal and uneven access to the food and how did all of that work. It was a love of food and people that was my connection to the community.”
In 2003, he went from volunteer to employee when he became the co-op general manager.
“More and more over time my focus has been on equity and what are the barriers that keep getting in the way from that being done in a way that works for everybody. It’s an endlessly fascinating subject.”
The Big Move
The People’s Food Co-op was once a quaint jumble of bins and shelves tucked in a small storefront on Burdick Street down the block from the Kalamazoo State Theatre. It had a little over 750 square feet of retail space. Its big renovation in 2005 took it from one aisle to two aisles. By 2008, the store was taking in about $1,000 per square foot.
“That was a lot of food that we were pushing through a tiny space. We knew it was time to do something,” he said. It took the team 30 months to finalize a building site at 507 Harrison St. — although Dilley says the location was in consideration from the start of the search.
“But it was always No. 2 on the list. There were enough concerns about the location. It’s not quite downtown. It’s not in the heart of a neighborhood. It’s on the periphery of a lot of things,” he said. “But the city was really supportive. We worked with the economic development team of the city. They were super supportive and a great partner in trying to make it happen.”
The new store opened in May of 2011. The 7,000 square foot building includes 3,500 square feet of retail space and an industrial kitchen.
“It was a leap,” he said. “The produce department was the size of the store. I think our regular shoppers’ jaws dropped when they walked in for the first time.”
But the move did not come without controversy, mostly from some who felt frustrated by the store’s move to the Northside. Dilley and others became aware of a feeling that the co-op was veering into gentrification, or changing the nature of the urban space with a service designed to appeal to wealthier community members.
“There was a real learning curve with the realization that we may be unintentionally contributing to gentrification and those dynamics,” Dilley said. “It led to an examination of what does that mean?”
Ultimately, the co-op wanted to create systems that opened food pathways to the broadest possible range of community members, but the staff realized they had to learn more about how to respect and honor the needs and feelings of the entire community if they were going to make that happen.
The co-op turned to the antiracism training organization ERACCE — Eliminating Racism & Creating/Celebrating Equity — for training in 2011. That work continued through 2013, when the store launched its own antiracism team.
“It’s led to a lot of development in our understanding of ourselves, whatever racial and gender identities we have and how those things show up, as well as a collective understanding of how we are showing up in the community as a whole. It’s complex,” Dilley said “There is a reason things get perpetuated, it’s so hard to understand it as a whole.
“You feel powerless in the face of it. We try to hold the space for learning and growing and figuring it out. We’re going to make mistakes but we’re going to try to do a little bit better every time.”
The work has led to things such as examining the store’s employment application and hiring practices, to looking at how expansion and relocation might affect the community, to considering pricing and sourcing, to rethinking customer service practices.
“I think that work has been some of the most satisfying parts of working here,” he said.
More than a Grocer
While he was building a retail outlet that supported farmers and community members who wanted access to more local food, he was also finding ways to expand the understanding of food systems in the area.
As a co-op volunteer, Dilley helped start the People’s Education for a Sustainable Future in 2000.
“It was an intentional attempt to do more of the educational stuff about food and food systems that we knew needed to be done,” he said. “We knew a tiny store like ours was never going to be able to support the kind of education that the community needed or deserved in terms of advocacy for local food systems. It became a constellation of programs that we thought helped highlight and lift up the local food system.”
The effort was spun off as its own nonprofit, and became known by the more user-friendly name Fair Food Matters. Dilley served on the board of the organization for 10 years. Eventually, it spawned efforts such as the Can-Do Kitchen, which supported food start-ups, and Eat Local Kalamazoo, which encouraged consumers to support locally-produced foods. Can-Do Kitchen eventually evolved into Can-Do Kalamazoo, which supports local business start-ups beyond food. That organization is run by Dilley’s wife, Lucy Dilley.
The PFC also has been instrumental in overseeing the growth of the Kalamazoo Farmers Market. For years, the co-op had been a vendor at the market, selling produce, breads, local cheeses, and other goods.
Co-op employee Elizabeth Forest helped bring Bridge Card purchasing to the market, which led to the Double Up program, which lets Bridge Card users double the value of what they spend on fresh fruits and vegetables at the market. Dilley estimates that the program brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars of sales to the market.
“That was the beginning of being able to see the value the People’s Food Co-op could bring to the market,” he said. “If we can build programs and systems that expand access, then there are more opportunities for vendors and for community members. That grew over time to being seen as a partner to all of the vendors at the market.”
When the city was seeking an outside organization to take over operation of the market in 2012, PFC stepped up to the plate which again expanded its influence in the local food landscape.
Chris Broadbent, who ran PFC’s 100-Mile Market, a mini farmers market, became the farmers market manager. “He was — and is — a visionary placemaker. He launched the market for us and did a great job,” Dilley said.
This past summer, an expanded and remodeled market opened with newly constructed pavilions with more vendor space, parking, trail access, offices, and restrooms. Current plans are to add a multipurpose building and playground to the campus.
Dilley said he didn’t have the vision for things like the farmers market or Can-Do Kitchen, those were the vision of the community. “I just care a lot and invested my time and effort to hold a space for this thing to grow, and to grow into what it needed to be. This is what the community wanted. I helped facilitate it.”
PFC’s success comes not from him, he says, but from the very essence of the organization: a cooperative effort of a diverse group of individuals.
“It’s that structure of being a cooperative that makes this possible. We are literally a collection of nearly 4,000 individuals and families,” he said. “It is a very broad group of people who think of things in different ways. I think that’s its real strength. Learning how to find common ground and channel the energy of the group into directions that inspire us all, that’s been a phenomenal experience.”
He’s excited to continue working on cooperative projects through Columinate and to support the idea of collective ways that a community can work together and make things better for everyone.
“I really love the idea of better, stronger co-ops of all kinds. I use the term co-op, but I mean what are the collective ways community can work together to make it better for ourselves — and everybody.”
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