Outpost’s Buy A Bag began in 1999. A partnership was formed with Milwaukee’s Hunger Task Force, a local emergency food bank that serves a network of 80 food pantries, homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Concern for Community is a co-op principle and Buy A Bag was developed as a way for co-op shoppers to make a positive impact in their community with regards to feeding the hungry. The program is a standard fund drive with a holiday flair. A $20 customer donation buys $40 worth of natural and organic groceries to feed the hungry. The variety of food the donation affords would fill a standard grocery bag – hence the inspiration for the program’s name - and includes pantry staples most often requested by food banks as well as fresh organic produce. 100% of proceeds raised is used by Outpost to purchase food at cost.
Shoppers are encouraged to donate $20 and “give a gift of food” in the name of loved ones or as a host/hostess gift. Printed gift cards are available upon request. Most purchase a bag anonymously. Some have purchased 100s bags, saying they were once homeless and hungry and now are in a position to give back. Children decorate paper grocery bags with seasonal themes. For their artwork, they receive a free piece of fruit. Teachers have their students decorate bags as part of class projects. Outpost provides them with all the bags. Decorated bags are displayed in the store during the holiday season and then are given freely to food pantries for patrons to use for shopping. Front-end staff ring bells and toot horns whenever a customer “buys a bag.” Contests between staffers to sell bags are rewarded by the co-op. Companies hold contests and donate all of the proceeds.
Hunger is a very real issue in our community. The objective of the Buy A Bag program is very simple: to provide food to Hunger Task Force to feed Milwaukee’s hungry. Recent polls rank Milwaukee as one of the poorest larger cities in the U.S. One in four households are below the poverty line for a family of 4. 30% of children in Milwaukee County live in poverty. On average, 34,000 people visit Hunger Task Force affiliated food pantries each month. Hunger Task Force provides all of its food free of charge. Roughly half of the food and support they rely on is donated.
Since 1999, Outpost shoppers have donated over $800K dollars of food in retail value. During this time there has been only one year where donations were lower than the year prior. Our first year saw $6,200 in donations. In 2014, the co-op’s best year to date, customers donated over $80K dollars, resulting in over $160K dollars of food in retail value. Now operating 5 store locations, our newest recently opening in a central city neighborhood, we hope our 2015 season will be our NEW “best ever!”
Co-ops exist to serve an unmet need in the community. While we can say this is especially true for the owner/members who invest in the co-op, it is true of all stakeholders who are in some way impacted by the co-op’s activities. So, we always strive to do the best that we can, because it is the right thing to do. At Outpost, community-give back is at the heart of who we are and why we operate. The Buy A Bag program is a natural extension of the desire to meet the needs of the community. We hope that eventually Hunger Task Force won’t need our food, because that would mean we have solved the issues of hunger in our community. Until that time, we hope our shoppers will continue to Buy a Bag at the holidays. Pam Mehnert, general manager, Outpost Natural Foods