Discover Kansas City’s hidden nooks and crannies as food, wine, beer and spirits lover Dave Eckert shares their wares with a healthy twist.
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Story by Dave Eckert
It’s called The Merc Co+Op, and if you’re at all familiar with Lawrence, Kansas, you’ve likely heard of it. Started in Lawrence in a basement or a garage, depending on who’s telling the story, back in 1974, The Community Mercantile as it was first known, is a food co-op sourcing healthy, local food. The Merc Co+Op has had several locations in Lawrence, including its current 18,000 square foot store at 9th and Iowa.
After a “very” soft opening in July of last year in the middle of the pandemic, The Merc Co+Op now has a second location in downtown Kansas City, Kansas. I was intrigued by the concept, so I reached out for a tour and an interview. I learned a lot during my time at The Merc Co+Op, perhaps most importantly why food co-ops are so good for the community. “It’s really an investment in your local community. The average grocery store carries about six percent local products. At The Merc, 30 percent of our food is local. So, that’s 30-plus local farms, plus local producers of things like barbecue sauce, farm to market bread, or the pastrami for the sandwich you just had,” Valerie Taylor, The Merc Co+Op’s Marketing Director, pointed out. The amount of local products carried varies by season and location. Taylor says they’re reaching out to new farmers and producers all the time. By the way, I should mention the pastrami sandwich was outstanding!
So, how exactly does a food co-op work? It’s a fairly simple concept, actually. The store is independent, owned by community members, and open to everyone to shop, eat, and just hang out. You can also join and enjoy the benefits of discounts while also supporting local businesses. “Everyone can shop at the co-op. You don’t have to be an owner, but if you want to become an owner, there are benefits,” Taylor shared. Taylor says benefits include discounts through special “owner days,” along with voting on and running for the board of directors. You get all of that for a one-time $75 investment. And, if you’re on food assistance in either Kansas or Missouri, it’s just $10 with an automatic ten percent discount on all purchases of fresh food. “So, produce, meat, seafood, and all dairy. It’s a way for us to incentivize healthy eating,” Taylor noted. Taylor points out that the stores accept both WICK and EBT, and she says they’re working to add Double Up Food Bucks, which will hopefully be in place by the end of the year.
And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The Merc Co+Op says it is at the forefront of:
- Providing access to healthy, local and organic food and products.
- Transforming and nourishing the health of our community.
- Creating a robust, sustainable local food economy.
- Building a community based on hospitality, generosity, and care for the environment.
Taylor points out that while each food co-op is unique and community-owned, they are all part of a network of neighborhood stores across the country – stores working together toward the common goal of providing residents good, local, healthy food. “We are members of the National Cooperative Association, which has been a really important umbrella to work under. The goal of the association is to make co-ops more recognizable and to help spread the good word of cooperative ownership,” Taylor told me.
I don’t live particularly close to The Merc Co+Op, but I’m considering joining the other 8,500-plus residents who already have. Supporting local just seems like the right thing to do. To learn more, stop by the store at 501 Minnesota in KCK or 9th and Iowa in Lawrence, or visit them online at themerc.coop. As they put it on their website, ‘Who says healthy, local, organic, and delicious has to be exclusive?’ Not them.