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Food as Community

We all know we need to eat healthy to stay healthy. And there’s plenty of information and resources about how to do this on an individual level. But what about at the community level? How do we “eat healthy” as a neighborhood or a town?

I went to hear Jon Steinman talk the other day on his book tour for Grocery Story: The Promise of Food Co-ops in the Age of Grocery Giants. He explained the dynamics of our current food system in North America. With the deregulation of the 1980’s, consolidation in the grocery industry has resulted in a handful of grocery chains owning the lion’s share of the market. Even grocery stores that started out with a sustainability mission have been bought up by the giants.

At the same time, along with farmer’s markets, there’s a growing number of food co-ops emerging across the country. In fact, the event I attended was sponsored by a new co-op in the startup phase. So how can these small, local co-ops compete with the huge national chains? Here are just a few advantages:

  • Member Owned — A food co-op is, by definition, owned and operated by people who live in the community; people like you and me. Because of this, all decisions are made at the local level not at a national headquarters halfway across the country.

  • Open to Everyone — Unlike other membership stores, where you have to show your card to get in the door, co-ops are open for everyone to shop. It doesn’t matter if you have a membership or not.

  • Locally Sourced — Co-ops can and do focus on supporting local growers and producers, providing shelf space without the fees that large grocery chains charge their suppliers. Official definitions of “local” have become twisted or inflated (in one case “local” went from a 30 mile radius to a 600 mile radius). But a co-op can decide to commit to providing a marketplace for truly local farmers, ranchers, growers and makers of all kinds (candles, lotions, textiles, etc.). Sourcing locally also reduces the transportation impact on the environment.

  • Thriving Local Economies — By supporting local producers, co-ops also help develop the local economy. When the food truck arrives with produce, it comes from a local farm and the money goes back to the farmer. These farmers, in turn, spend their money locally too: hiring service providers, eating at restaurants, buying supplies. The money circulates within the local community, helping businesses thrive. By contrast, money spent at the big box stores gets channeled out of town and supports a system that makes a few individuals at the very top even wealthier.

  • Food Affordability — This is a complex issue and it’s important to understand the dynamics. It’s not  about driving down the prices. Our current food system is based on this model and it’s wreaking havoc on the environment. Food affordability also includes making sure  farmers and producers are earning enough to keep producing. It’s about fair prices and making food accessible. Many co-ops have chosen to offer a 5 to 25% discount to people who qualify for food assistance programs. Co-ops also have a built-in mechanism that makes it impossible to gouge customers. The profits go back into the business, which is owned by the members, who are also customers. If there’s still money left over, it’s paid back to the member-owners as dividends.

  • Community Hub — Co-ops often become much more than just a grocery store; they’re places where people gather. One co-op outgrew its space and desperately needed a new location. But the co-op was committed to staying downtown in this city of 10,000 people. So the board decided to wait for the right opportunity. When an appropriate space opened up, they proposed and built not just a store, but a commons with the co-op on the ground floor and apartments above. Now the co-op has a café that uses the excess produce from the store, reducing waste. It has a teaching kitchen and community gathering space. There’s an entire section of prepared foods so customers can just grab a meal and go. Even without all these resources, co-ops often have a vibrancy that attracts people to hang out and meet up with friends.

Food co-ops offer a powerful way for communities to regain control of their food source. For towns with no grocery store at all, this is a viable path out of the “food desert.” Co-ops provide so much more than just a place to stock up on fuel for the day. They can have a positive impact on our health, our food system, our local economies, our environment, even our sense of community. Check out Jon’s book and learn more: Grocery Story: The Promise of Food Co-ops in the Age of Grocery Giants.

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