The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Taking Back Our Food: Establishing a Food Co-Op in the Community July 1, 2015

Just one of the many delights at a local co-op- organic, heirloom lettuce

Just one of the many delights at a local co-op- organic, heirloom lettuce

I remember the first time I visited a food co-op.  It was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a wonderful, progressive town, and the co-op was incredible.  From products made or grown locally in South-East Michigan (non-GMO and organic tortilla chips, fresh salsa, all kinds of fruits and vegetables, raw chocolates, kale chips, soaps, baked goods and so much more) to regionally available products (like tofu, organic candy bars, raw milk cheeses, and even miso). It was an exciting place to be. All of the food I could have wanted to buy in one place, and that food was better, healthier, and fresher.  That food also paid a living wage to its creators.  The prices were fair, the atmosphere pleasant, the workers in the store friendly and helpful–and most important–happy to be at work.  I made it a point to get there every 6 or so weeks while I lived in Michigan so I could stock up on as much amazing, local and regional stuff as possible. The co-op was owned by the community and operated for the community.

 

Last night, I attending the first meeting where my new community in Indiana, PA is working to open a food co-op (did I choose to move to the right place or what?) It was so exciting to sit in the room, see how many people were there, contribute ideas, and really think about how we can make this vision a reality.  As you can expect, I decided to jump in on the planning and will keep some updates on our progress as this exciting venture begins!  Today, I thought it would be helpful to discuss some of the underlying reasons that a community would take the long road of opening up a food co-op.

 

On Community Food Education & Asking the Right Questions

One of the issues raised at the end of the meeting was on the importance of food education in the community–if we build it, will they come? This ultimately comes down to helping the broader community understand that the issues surrounding the production and consumption of their food really matter.  We’ve been led to believe that price is the only factor that matters in the purchasing of our food–but, truthfully, so much more also matters. We can look at the issue of food education through a series of questions, such as:

  • Where is my food produced? (Local, regional, in the US, outside
  • What regulations, if any, determine the safety of that production?
  • Under which conditions is my food produced? (chemicals, pesticides, GMOs, organic practices, certified naturally grown)
  • Have the producers of this food and their workers been paid a living wage? (this includes farmers and anyone who picks or processes the food)
  • How far has my food traveled to arrive at my plate?
  • How much waste is in the packaging?
  • Have the workers who have transported, stocked, sold, or otherwise contributed to this food getting into my hands been paid a living wage?
  • Is this food free of contaminants?
  • Is this food healthy and nurturing for me?
  • Does the money paid for this food go back into the local community?

These questions get at a series of underlying issues that, I believe, sit at the core of why communities, like my new community here in Indiana, PA, come together to take back their food. Let’s take a look at each of these underlying issues.

 

Locally grown beans!

Locally grown beans!

Transparency

The first issue that a food-co op (and other direct sales, like farmer’s markets) solve is transparency. I believe people have a right to know exactly what is in their food, how it was grown, if there were chemical additives, what kinds of seeds it came from, and so on. Beyond being just about knowledge of what one’s putting into their bodies, we also have increasing–and severe–food allergies. People living with these allergies have to navigate an increasingly masked system where chemicals and contaminants show up all along the food chain. Even for people without allergies, the desire to know what you are eating and to eat in a chemical free, wholesome manner is critical.

 

Unfortunately, the US government is going in the opposite direction of food transparency, and on a national and international level, there are a lot of corporations trying to make sure we have no idea where our food is produced, the genetics of that food, and so on. Why?  Because knowledge is power, and they are engaged in a slew of unethical practices (factory farming, GMO warfare, worker exploitation, etc). Just this month, the US House of Representatives, in their infinite wisdom, voted to repeal country of origin labeling on meat.  I don’t know about you, but there is no way in hell I want to be eating chicken from China–now, if you buy that chicken in a conventional store–you’d just never know if the House gets its way.

Control

The second issue surrounding our food is control.  I’ll give a very simple example of this: I have a friend who has some very severe food allergies, and a large grocery chain where she shops stopped carrying the only miso b that was OK for her to eat. Talking with the managers of the store did nothing to return the miso to the shelves–the decisions about what she had access to buy were controlled by “corporate” somewhere in a different state–literally hundreds of miles away.  This happens all the time in big grocery chains: people who have never set foot in your town or community make all the decisions about what you have access to buy. They have access about what farms they choose to use, how they work with those farms, how they present material to consumers about the nature of those farms, and so on. Some may say “but what about the laws of supply and demand?” Sure, this works to some extent, but as my friend’s example illustrates, its rarely enough.

 

Access

Access happens on a few levels. First, there is the physical access of the grocery store. One of the immediate issues facing our community is having a walkable, accessible grocery store that doesn’t require the use of a car.  The history in Indiana, PA was that there was one in town, but it closed, and since then, our downtown hasn’t had a grocery store or really anywhere even to get foods beyond convenience foods or prepared foods.  This suggests a kind of food desert, where access to healthy and fresh vegetables is largely not there (although there is bus transportation to grocery stores on the edges of town and there is a farmer’s market downtown on Saturday mornings during the warmer season).  Putting a food co-op in the place where most people can easily access helps solve the issue of easy access to fresh food.

 

The second issue surrounding access is accessibility of good, wholesome food. Its not easy, always, for people to get food that they want to have.  I end up driving all over the place to secure the basic necessities (from farmer drop-offs to the farmer’s market to bulk and health food stores).  A lot of people simply won’t do that–so if we want to encourage healthier and local food choices, we need to make that food accessible.  A co-op also gives us the opportunity to bring in awesome foods made regionally by other co-ops.

 

Locally grown garlic

Locally grown garlic

Food Miles & Environmental Issues

The term “localvore” has been used to describe someone dedicated to eating locally produced foods.  I’ve talked about this extensively in other blog posts.  One of the things a local food co-op does is allow us to reduce the amount of fossil fuels it takes us not only to get the food (going back to access) but also how far our food travels to get on our plates. It also allows us to support local, organic, and sustainable agriculture, which is generally less environmentally destructive than big agriculture (I’ll direct your attention to a recent UN report, that said the only way to solve the world’s hunger problems and address sustainability and environmental concerns was to create a network of sustainable, small farms). Its much harder for a farmer to mask poor farming practices when that farmer is only a few miles up the road–and one can see the way the farmer treats the land.  Local agriculture also typically uses a lot less packaging and plastic–another source of food waste.  All of these issues are wrapped up in broader environmental ones, like fossil fuel use, landfill use, and land use–and buying local can make a real difference.

 

Fair Trade and Fair Prices

Another benefit of a co-op is that fair trade and fair prices are emphasized for all.  Local farmers are paid a livable, reasonable wage for their food and they can grow in larger quantity knowing that they have a market.  Items we can’t get locally, like chocolate or coffee, can be fair trade to ensure that all farmers and workers are paid ethically (again, when most corporations buy food, their only concern is cost, which drives farmers’ and workers’ wages down and increases poverty). At the same time, as my experience at the People’s Food Co-Op in Ann Arbor suggests, prices can be kept fair for community members, partially because the model is not for-profit, but for-community.  Nobody is cutting themselves a big check out of the co-op; that money is re-invested in our farms, community, and members.

 

The second thing that fair trade and fair prices does, essentially, is to vote with one’s dollars.  Each time you buy something, you support that practice.  If we financially support organic farms, that keeps those farms going and encourages more demand. A co-op can radically increase demand for this kind of food because it makes it more accessible.

 

Keeping Money Local & Living Wages

Buying local means we keep money locally, into the hands of other members in our community, where it can continue to circulate and do the most good.  Many big businesses involved in food have become too big and concentrate wealth in the hands of their upper managers, CEOs, and shareholders–not in the everyday workers or producers that actually grow, make, or sell the goods. By shifting money back into our local economy and into the hands of producers, we not only keep that money locally, we also develop more resiliency as a community.

There’s also an issue of workers’ pay. Most people who are working in any kind of food service industry are paid wages that likely land them on food stamps–Walmart is a prime example of this, where their workers can’t even afford to buy their cheap food because of sub-standard wages.  A community co-op can ensure that workers there provide a livable wage to employees.

 

Members of my previous community learning together!

Members of my previous community learning together!

Resiliency

One of the big issues surrounding local food movements is resiliency.  Resiliency, used in the sustainability and permaculture design movements, is basically the capacity to endure, despite various trials and setbacks.  What this ultimately comes down to is that a community wants to be able to feed itself and take care of itself–because we never know if someone else will be there to do it for us. Never, at any time in human history, have so many people depended on others for basic needs of survival: food, employment, health, entertainment, and so on. I think if we can bring resiliency to our food system, we can learn how to do this is so many other ways as well–in this way, food becomes the catalyst for broader community change.  Our community ceases being a market for others and instead, we start to become the producers of of our own needs. Why is this concept of resiliency important?  Some of the recent natural disasters in the US are one good example–when Hurricane Sandy hit, all sorts of shipping lines were disrupted and people were largely on their own for weeks. A strong community, one that already has come together, can face these, or any other, kinds of issues.

Community Identity and Empowerment

Ultimately, what bringing a co-op to a local community means is that the residents of that community have made a commitment to the economic, health, and social well being of their community. They have decided to take the power and decisions out of the hands of corporate entities at a distance and to re-invest time, money, and energy locally where the direct effects matter.  They have done so while practicing the principles of self-organization, collaboration, democracy, and compromise. This helps us build resilient, strong, and self-sustaining communities who depend on each other, who know each other, who can work together, and who grow together.

My community here is still in the early process of starting our co-op–I welcome comments and discussion on this post to help us think through these issues further!

 

Six Principles for Local Eating August 10, 2012

A little dirt on veggies suggests less processing and more freshness!

A little dirt on veggies suggests less processing and more freshness!

Our eating practices can be incredibly environmentally and personally destructive.  In the typical food system in America, we ship food from all corners of the earth burning fossil fuels, we exploit workers and growers, we depend upon multinational corporate food systems who care more about profits than good heath or environmental stewardship, and we eat foods pumped full of pesticides, chemicals, and other things that slowly degrade our lands and bodies.  Food is a big issue, and recently, alternative models, including locally-based diets, have become a central part of the sustainability movement.  People who eat locally call themselves “localvores”, although definitions of what is local are based on the area’s climate, resources, etc.  For example, I try to keep my diet to 150 miles, but someone living in Alaska might have a local diet of far greater due to that region’s scarcity.

 

For the last five years, I’ve been slowly working to shift my family’s diet to 100% local eating.  I’m not sure if that’s a reality while working a full time job, but in the summers, I’m pleased to say we are usually upwards of 70-80% local.  In the winters, this is closer to 40-50%.  A lot of people ask me about how to go about doing this because the task seems overwhelming, so I wanted to blog about it.

 

First and foremost, when making any lifestyle shift from the mundane to the radical, you might see this shift as similar to climbing up a mountain.  A mountain climb can be difficult, yes, but you don’t do it all at once and you don’t do it without preparation.   I suggest the following six principles to making a lifestyle transition to local foods:

 

  1. Recognize your resources and challenges.  This is critical to making the transition to local foods.  You want to see what is available to you already–do you have land for growing your own food? An excellent CSA? Good farmer’s markets?  Local farmers who sell produce from their land?   You also want to identify any challenges you have: time, a limited budget, harsh winters with no fresh veggies, no good growing space, etc.
  2. Educate yourself & your family. As you are staring to formulate your plan, you want to spend a lot of time educating yourself about food, in general. You might do some reading on how to tell a good organic food from a bad one, the higher ecological footprint of foods, and above all, understanding what is in season and able to be grown locally, and when.  If you plan on growing your own food, you’ll also want to educate yourself on various preservation methods: canning, root cellaring, dehydrating, fermenting, etc.
  3. Observe your current eating habits.  One of the other things I did early in this process was to spend time documenting and observing my family’s eating habits.  This allowed me to formulate a plan that targeted certain kinds of foods.  For example, we eat a lot of tomato products, so we began canning our own tomatoes.  We also ate a lot of cereal products, so we worked to find alternatives (like getting local oats and making our own granola).
  4. Create a plan. Having a plan in mind is good to set goals and to think about your targets.  In making the transition to local foods, you are making a pretty substantial lifestyle change, and this change takes time and patience to enact.  You may also have to deal with family members who aren’t as committed to the change as you are, and find good alternatives.
  5. Take one small step at a time. Mountains are not climbed in a day; nor will you make the transition to local foods in one day!  Be realistic with your goals, and remember that a small, lasting change is better than a drastic one that you are unable to continue.  You should also think about the changes you are making and how they impact your other family members.  The key is to get them on board and agreeing to the changes–so slow changes over time might work better for you.
  6. Be determined and stay focused on your goal.  I really believe that success is 99% determination, so keep that in mind!  If you fall, get yourself back up and keep going.

What has really assisted me in this process is by making slow, dedicated shifts over time.  Each year, I take on a “project’ that assists my family in making the transition from heavy super-market reliance a local, sustainable approach.

 

My first big shift was seeking out any local sources of easily accessible food.  I rejoiced when I found a year-round farmer’s market with online ordering that offered veggies, fruits, locally-grown and milled flour, cheese, vinegar, eggs, teas, local meats, herbal remedies, garden supplies, and assorted other wonderful things.  The online local market combined with Farmer’s Market shopping immediately allowed us to shift close to 30% of our eating.   The online market really gave us a jump start on this process.  We did have to learn how to cook differently with different ingredients available seasonally, but that part wasn’t too difficult (although there is no doubt that by March we are totally sick of winter squash, apples, carrots, and potatoes, lol!)

 

A second big shift was declaring tomato independence.  After observing my family’s eating habits and recognizing how many tomatoes we consumed,  I aimed, last summer, to be 100% tomato independent.  This meant that, in August and September, I would have to spend time canning and drying tomatoes.  I am pleased to say that in this last year, we purchased no tomato products–all came from our own garden.

 

Preserves and Jellies were another easy early step–they are easy to can and, in my area, wild berries are abundant.

 

Canned Rhubarb (Jam and BBQ sauce)

Canned Rhubarb (Jam and BBQ sauce)

Snacks and convenience foods are rarely local, and so you’ll really have to think about shifting your eating behavior in this way.  I cut out a lot of the junk food, which is great for my health.  I usually, now, snack on local popcorn (some of which I grow myself and some of which is grown nearby) or on dehydrated or fresh fruits and veggies.  I still do a lot of baked goods (especially with access to great locally milled flour). My husband has been a more difficult case.  He is very set in his ways, and wants to eat Life cereal for breakfast every morning and Lean Cuisines for lunch every day.  Since we both work full time, this has been an ongoing challenge.

 

Our focus for this year is dairy.  I love dairy, and I’m not going to give it up.  Local dairy has been more tricky, mainly because of a lack of time to seek it out.  Our CSA offers some raw cheeses and eggs (which can also be found at my local farmer’s market), but butter has been a real problem. I stopped drinking milk entirely because I wasn’t willing to buy it at the supermarket (I switched to rice milk for cereal, but that’s not local, so I’m still working on this).  I’m currently researching goat milk shares, cow milk shares, and educating myself on butter and cheese making.  We also recently began raising 4 chickens, which should provide our family with all of the eggs that we need.

 

The peeps will be laying fresh eggs in a few months!

The peeps will be laying fresh eggs in a few months!