Inside the Grain Train: More Than Your Typical Grocery Store

Grain TrainThe reasons people first stop by Petoskey’s Grain Train are as varied as their unique health challenges.

Doctors may have advised changes to their diet. Some have a newly vegan relative coming for the holidays. Parents of young toddlers start coming as they decide making the switch to organic foods is right for their family. Others are vacationing in the resort town, looking for a local alternative to the Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s they normally rely on.

People keep coming in because they find what they’re looking for in all of those cases and more.

The northern Michigan natural food market cooperative is the area’s only USDA certified organic retail grocery store. The original cooperative was established in 1971 and a second retail location opened late last year in Boyne City.

“Grain Train exists to inspire our community to make healthy choices for both people and planet,” said Events and Outreach Coordinator Mindy Taylor. “We are a grocery store, but it’s more about what we believe in and how we do it.”

Anyone can shop at the store, but joining the cooperative definitely has benefits. Member owners pay a one-time $210 payment. As a member, you get to choose one day per month where you get 10 percent off your purchase. There are other perks such as discounts on case quantities and special orders, patronage rebates if the store is profitable, input on product selection, and eligibility to run for the Grain Train Board of Directors.

As a cooperative, the store’s overall mission isn’t to make money, but rather to serve as an education hub and natural foods and products resource for the community. The store doesn’t carry anything with herbicides, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, or known GMOs.

“When you’re shopping at the Grain Train, you don’t have to hunt through the 800 salad dressings to find one that doesn’t contain high-fructose corn syrup,” Taylor said. “You can shop here and know you don’t have to worry.”

Even though the store is certified organic, that doesn’t mean everything on store shelves is. Taylor explained that even though a product might not be certified organic, which can be an expensive designation for small farmers and producers to acquire, the Grain Train ensures it still meets organic guidelines. To retain their certified organic standing, certified organic products that come into the store are handled with care. Requirements on everything from how and where they’re stored and the cleaning products used in the store are strictly adhered to.

“For products that come in organic, we make sure they leave organic,” Taylor said.

The co-op is governed by seven cooperative principles which include voluntary and open membership, education, and concern for community. In 2013, they supported 33 local farms and 24 local producers by purchasing their products. Through their Grain Train Delivers program, areas of northern Michigan that lack access to natural and organic foods have an option to have the Grain Train come to them. People in communities such as Alpena and Sault St. Marie are able to place orders which are delivered by Grain Train. They’ll also bring along a pop-up market so others can purchase individual goods as well.

Education and outreach support the store’s mission. A number of classes are held for the community, including herbal education with a Colorado-certified herbalist and a gluten-free support group. Store leadership serves on the local food alliance and downtown events committees and provides programming in local classrooms, camps, health fairs, and at community events.

The store is filled with unique items that you might not find at a traditional grocery – seaweed snacks, chocolate covered quinoa, and fluorescent pink beet hummus are just a few. They carry milk in glass containers as well as a number of dairy alternatives. Taylor said kombucha, a fermented drink made with tea, sells extremely well. There’s also an entire aisle bursting with natural supplements and herbal health remedies.

“For us, it’s all about supporting our customers and what they’re looking for,” she said. “We really do have the basics as well as cater to those specialties.”

There’s no one healthy way of eating promoted by the store, Taylor explained. She said offering healthier choices lets people decide what healthy means to them.

“I think we all come to healthy eating for different reasons,” she said.

For the over 2,000 co-op members who gather at the store to shop or grab a healthy meal from the store’s deli, complete with hot bar and salad bar, the Grain Train is a special place. Taylor attributes the store’s continued success and growth to a spirit that unites people in the area.

“I think community means a lot to Petoskey and to Boyne City,” she said. “I think community is a strong part of it.”

Photo credit: Julie Bitely

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