The Purple Porch Co-op

By+Kelli Stopczynski

How Simple Conversations and a Neighborhood Porch made a Difference.

Think about all the conversations we have around our kitchen tables—about life, family, work, growing up, beliefs and aspirations. That dialogue can be both precious and powerful. For neighbors Greg Koehler & Krista Bailey and Tama Crisovan & Rich Wallace, a kitchen table conversation became the springboard for a great idea: why not start a food co-op in South Bend?
 
“We all came from places that had co-ops,” Tama said.  “Ann Arbor, where I’m originally from has four and Greg and his wife went to school in Bloomington where they have a beautiful co-op. We couldn’t understand why South Bend didn’t have one.”

That 2008 conversation turned into a buyer’s club where 15 local families used the Crisovan’s purple porch in the River Park neighborhood as a place to pick up and drop off bulk food. Rather than beginning a for-profit business whose goal is to make money, the originators of what became the Purple Porch Co-op wanted a more community approach to food. They felt there was much to be gained by being a member-owned organization.

From May 2009 through March 2010 the co-op distributed food Wednesday nights at Good Shepherd Montessori School cafeteria in South Bend. But the growing organization soon outgrew that space and moved to LangLab, a multi-use facility in South Bend. “In reality we have the best of both worlds. You have the convenience of going online to place your order but then you still get to meet the people who made your food. That connection is so important,” Greg, now the co-op’s General Manager, said.

Co-op members agree.

“Our food dollars stay in this community and we appreciate the food that we eat so much more when we know the people who grew it for us,” explained Kerri Engelhardt who joined the organization two years ago.

Engelhardt and her family purchase meat, eggs, bread, wheat and corn flour, oatmeal, maple syrup, dried beans and lots of fresh produce among other specialties through Purple Porch. That food comes from participating growers who live within a 60 mile radius of South Bend. Almost all of them produce organically.  

“During the summer and fall especially we get so much from Purple Porch that we make very few trips to the grocery store,” she said. 

At first, organizers thought the co-op would simply be a summer market because of the growing season in Northern Indiana and Southwest Michigan. But as the organization picked up steam, many local farmers extended their growing seasons to keep up with the demand.  It is now a year-round operation. 

“We’re people who are familiar with co-ops,” said Tama, the current board president of the co-op.  “We’re not like an old 70s co-op—a grocery store with a bunch of bins of dry goods. But we’re not a grocery store either. We’re really an online Farmer’s Market. It’s really interesting because we don’t fit in any traditional categories.”

After placing orders on the organization’s website, members pick up their food each Wednesday evening.  Due to popular request, the co-op recently added Saturday pick-up.

“From adding great new producers, to finding a great new location and seemingly always looking at and implementing improvements or responding to members’ input, Purple Porch has impressed me with its forward-looking adaptability,” said member Aaron Willis. 

Currently 225 members strong with a goal of hitting 300 by the end of this year, the co-op is clearly fulfilling a need in the South Bend community. After all, it’s that forward-looking adaptability and a simple kitchen table conversation that proved a lively marketplace of commerce, friendship and food could become a success.

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