by Lynn Olson, Cooperative Services Manager
Our pursuit to eat locally is often thwarted when we yearn to spice things up a bit. Wasabi, tamari, plum paste and sea vegetables, even grains and flours haven’t exactly made their way into our local production system. Fortunately, one Michigan-based company has been bringing us organic and macrobiotic foods like these for nearly 40 years. Eden Foods grew from a small food cooperative into a company with a global pursuit for organic, macrobiotic and traditional Japanese foods. They now offer 250 rejuvenative foods while helping to sustain over 300 North American farm families and more throughout the world.
In the beginning
In the mid-1960s, Eden Foods Co-op in Ann Arbor, Michigan began seeking out their local farmers and buying whole grains to serve their members who were searching for more options for organic and macrobiotic foods. Members produced and packaged stone-ground flours, oils and whole grain cereals for distribution to area health food stores. Early demand for more products supported the creation of the Eden Foods retail store in 1969, which featured a cafeteria, bakery and book section. Area shoppers were delighted to have a wide selection of products including miso, sea vegetables and locally-grown organic whole grain foods to choose from.
Leading the wayAfter dissolving as a cooperative, their President Michael Potter became majority owner and has since help this company achieve a leadership position in their industry as an outspoken advocate for strict organic guidelines and pure foods. Well before the National Organic Program was established, Michael’s mission to provide non-GMO, unirradiated and pesticide-free foods helped to steer the entire organic industry movement.
Early fair tradingBy 1972, a burgeoning Eden Foods moved their operations to an Ann Arbor warehouse in answer to an appeal by their community to provide an even bigger and varied line of products. Establishing early fair trade relationships with respected Japanese food manufacturers allowed Eden Foods to introduce items including shoyu, umeboshi plums, kuzu root starch, rice vinegar, rice bran pickles and mirin to their growing audience of organic consumers.
After their warehouse was destroyed by a fire in 1979, a new facility was opened in Clinton, Michigan, where they remain today. The property surrounding the 60,000 square foot facility includes 26 acres of native woodlands, wetlands and organic gardens. The nearly 100 people employed in their headquarters still produce several of the products there or work in their administrative offices. Product development, packaging design and advertising are still managed in-house by their staff at the Clinton head-
A family-oriented company Tonya Martin, an Eden Foods writer and spokesperson, says of the work climate at the Clinton site, “I hate when businesses say they’re like family, because they’re a business, but it does feel like family. There’s a lot of love [here]. It’s a family-oriented company. Every birth is celebrated, we still have a company picnic, and everybody knows each other’s kids by name. It’s kind of a rare, old-fashioned feel to this company.” In addition, Eden Foods employees enjoy excellent medical and dental insurance plans as well as 401K with matching, education reimbursement and a wholesale employee store.
Whole grain firsts
Continuing to grow in the late 1970s, Eden Foods asked the very traditional Schmidt Noodle Company in nearby Detroit to produce a whole grain noodle for them using locally-grown grains. Reluctant to even try, the noodle makers were urged on by Eden Foods before finally succeeding in making Eden’s first whole grain spaghetti noodles. In 1982, Eden Foods was able to purchase the same company, and, in 1989, this particular factory became the first certified-organic food processing facility in North America.
The creation of soymilk
In the early 1980s, representatives from Cornell University and a Japanese-owned firm who pioneered and engineered the mass production of soymilk approached Michael Potter. Potter, who doesn’t “do” milk, was excited to find something he could put in his coffee or eat over cereal and thought enough of the product to pursue this new venture. After finding natural ingredients to replace the originally-proposed synthetic ones, Eden Foods began shipping their local soybeans to Japan in order to utilize the machinery capable of producing soymilk. In July of 1983, attendees at a national food show were the first to be introduced to Eden Foods soymilk, familiarly known as Edensoy, now synonymous with soymilk. Still using certified organic North American-grown soybeans, Eden Foods currently manufactures their soymilks with partner company, American Soy Products (ASP) in Saline, Michigan, just a short trip from their Clinton location. By partnering with ASP and making the enormous purchase of the TetraPak equipment needed to produce and package soymilk, Eden Foods was able to bring the entire operation to the U.S. It is the most popular product among their many selections. A full-time Quality Assurance staff tests each batch of Edensoy 240 times during each run to ensure a consistently superior product.
Growing, growing, growing
Recognizing the nutritional importance of beans in a healthy diet, Eden Foods has been offering several varieties of locally-grown dried beans since their beginning. But it wasn’t until 1991 when they acquired the New Meridian Foods Company in Eaton, Indiana that they were able to offer a line of conveniently pre-cooked canned beans. The kosher-certified cannery received its organic certification in 1994 and employs about 30 staff members. An office and warehouse in Union City, California were added later to accommodate further growth across the U.S., Canada and the Pacific Rim. In all, 174 employees of Eden Foods are spread out among the many sites. Eden Foods purchased the Saboya Company of Montreal, Quebec in 2001 to become the only North American producer of certified organic soba, udon, somen and traditional Japanese pastas, using only North American-grown grains.
The latest development deal for Eden Foods was struck when they partnered with the 75-year old Avita Water Company in Grayling, Michigan to produce Eden Springs Artesian Water. The northern Michigan plant is located on a privately-owned 200-acre estate and is surrounded by state forest. The inclined aquifer that feeds the artesian well is not pumped, but water rises naturally to the surface and flows unrestricted into a stainless steel tank before flowing to the bottling line.
Farmers growing for Eden Foods are located throughout North America, but the highest concentration of growers exists in Michigan and Ohio. Tomatoes are grown in Ontario and grains are primarily grown in Montana, North Dakota, Canada and the high plains. “All along we’ve tried to make organic farming viable and a better choice for our growers,” Tonya says. “We go in and contract before each growing season and let them know we’ll buy ‘this much at this price.’ We’re still doing that because...they know that we’re going to buy from them at this price, [and they’re not] subject to market whims.”
Working with fair trade agencies in other countries, Eden Foods has established relationships with farmers in Japan, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic to produce those foods such as tea, quinoa and chocolate we’re unable to grow in this region. In all, Eden Foods accounts for 40,000 acres in organic production to grow the foods they sell.
Sustaining a community
Sustaining a community is also an important aspect to their way of doing business and Eden Foods knows this very well. “We do a lot of sponsoring of local festivals,” Tonya comments. “We have quite a bit of community involvement with all of our facilities. One of the coolest things we did was last year. Clinton has a little movie theater, an old revived theater right on Main Street, and the family that runs it, they’re just so cool.” After approaching the local theater to offer free showings of “Supersize Me,” they jumped right on it. Tonya says, “They showed the movie, and we provided the organic popcorn and other snacks, and we gave everyone who attended a goody bag. This theater, ever since, has been selling our snacks at their concession stand. They come over and buy organic popcorn from us by the case.”
A commitment to sustainability
Finally, Eden Foods carries out their commitment to sustainability by incorporating several methods into the production at all of their facilities to eliminate waste. Their fleet of trucks utilizes the latest fuel-efficient technologies and pollution controls. Each facility recycles everything recyclable and composts everything compostable, and every cleaning product they use is 100% biodegradable.
To learn more
For more information about Eden Foods, check out their website at www.edenfoods.com. To try some of their products, browse the aisles here at the Willy Street Co-op.