Comments on: Strategies for Community Food Security: The Local Foods Coop http://sharonastyk.com/2009/01/15/strategies-for-community-food-security-the-local-foods-coop/ Sharon Astyk's Ruminations on an Ambiguous Future Sun, 04 Oct 2009 00:32:45 +0000 #?v=2.3.2 By: Rosa http://sharonastyk.com/2009/01/15/strategies-for-community-food-security-the-local-foods-coop/#comment-16583 Rosa Tue, 20 Jan 2009 19:36:43 +0000 http://sharonastyk.com/2009/01/15/strategies-for-community-food-security-the-local-foods-coop/#comment-16583 I've belonged to two well-established food co-ops that went belly up, the more recent one was North Country Food Coop here in Minneapolis. It was one of many in town, but it was the one that focused on affordability and was most democratic (and was a worker's coop, not a buyer's coop). The coops that focus on high-priced food do it because that's how they pay their bills; the profit on fresh deli and organic junk food is *way* higher than for bulk whole grains, but they both have the same overhead costs, and analysis over time has shown the coops (that stay in the black) where they need to focus to pay the rent. If you want cheap basic food, let your local coop know (even if you're a customer, not a member). Keep letting them know, and chances are they'll do POS tracking and know if the trend is away from the high-priced items. If it is, they may change. I’ve belonged to two well-established food co-ops that went belly up, the more recent one was North Country Food Coop here in Minneapolis. It was one of many in town, but it was the one that focused on affordability and was most democratic (and was a worker’s coop, not a buyer’s coop).

The coops that focus on high-priced food do it because that’s how they pay their bills; the profit on fresh deli and organic junk food is *way* higher than for bulk whole grains, but they both have the same overhead costs, and analysis over time has shown the coops (that stay in the black) where they need to focus to pay the rent.

If you want cheap basic food, let your local coop know (even if you’re a customer, not a member). Keep letting them know, and chances are they’ll do POS tracking and know if the trend is away from the high-priced items. If it is, they may change.

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By: Bob Waldrop http://sharonastyk.com/2009/01/15/strategies-for-community-food-security-the-local-foods-coop/#comment-16551 Bob Waldrop Mon, 19 Jan 2009 16:58:44 +0000 http://sharonastyk.com/2009/01/15/strategies-for-community-food-security-the-local-foods-coop/#comment-16551 PS regarding price. With our present economic system, if we want a more sustainable, humane, and just agricultural system, then there must be a market for the products of a more sustainable, humane, and just agricultural system. If producers don't make a profit, they won't produce. Our prices are generally higher than big box supermarkets, but they are lower than prices at e.g. the Whole Foods stores that I have visited elsewhere. The question may fairly be asked, what about low income people? The Oklahoma Food Coop has a wide range of members in all economic categories. Lower income people tend to buy only basic products. For low income people, I think there are 6 elements of food security: 1) frugal supermarket shopping, (2) preparing meals from basic ingredients, (3) buying local foods, (4) gardening, (5) food storage, and (6) home preservation of food. While I am not personally making minimum wage, my income is below the median for Oklahoma. So I don't buy many prepared foods through the coop (the casseroles, breads, etc.). I buy basic ingredients -- ground meats, pork chops, sausage, eggs, cheese, butter, and wheat which I grind for flour. I buy some vegetables when available, but I also have a garden for veggies. I rarely buy steaks, I buy one roast a month, and some "minute steaks". What I find, in my own cooking, is that I make more casseroles, which stretch the expensive meat ingredient. I use less of certain ingredients, such as eggs and butter, because they are more expensive. But they are so much better than supermarket fare that they add a lot of value to the cooking. Due to federal laws, at this point we are unable to accept food stamps, we need a brick and mortar storefront to do that. In the meantime, members of the coop can donate money to buy food from farmers to give to the poor, and to provide free home deliveries for disabled members of the coop who can't get to one of our pick-up sites. PS regarding price. With our present economic system, if we want a more sustainable, humane, and just agricultural system, then there must be a market for the products of a more sustainable, humane, and just agricultural system. If producers don’t make a profit, they won’t produce. Our prices are generally higher than big box supermarkets, but they are lower than prices at e.g. the Whole Foods stores that I have visited elsewhere.

The question may fairly be asked, what about low income people? The Oklahoma Food Coop has a wide range of members in all economic categories. Lower income people tend to buy only basic products. For low income people, I think there are 6 elements of food security: 1) frugal supermarket shopping, (2) preparing meals from basic ingredients, (3) buying local foods, (4) gardening, (5) food storage, and (6) home preservation of food.

While I am not personally making minimum wage, my income is below the median for Oklahoma. So I don’t buy many prepared foods through the coop (the casseroles, breads, etc.). I buy basic ingredients — ground meats, pork chops, sausage, eggs, cheese, butter, and wheat which I grind for flour. I buy some vegetables when available, but I also have a garden for veggies. I rarely buy steaks, I buy one roast a month, and some “minute steaks”. What I find, in my own cooking, is that I make more casseroles, which stretch the expensive meat ingredient. I use less of certain ingredients, such as eggs and butter, because they are more expensive. But they are so much better than supermarket fare that they add a lot of value to the cooking.

Due to federal laws, at this point we are unable to accept food stamps, we need a brick and mortar storefront to do that. In the meantime, members of the coop can donate money to buy food from farmers to give to the poor, and to provide free home deliveries for disabled members of the coop who can’t get to one of our pick-up sites.

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By: Bob Waldrop http://sharonastyk.com/2009/01/15/strategies-for-community-food-security-the-local-foods-coop/#comment-16549 Bob Waldrop Mon, 19 Jan 2009 16:50:10 +0000 http://sharonastyk.com/2009/01/15/strategies-for-community-food-security-the-local-foods-coop/#comment-16549 It was a great experience to get back from North Dakota (where I gave a presentation on the Oklahoma Food Coop), just in time for the January delivery day of our coop, and then when catching up on the internet news to see this story from Sharon and all the great comments. . . Regarding the Manna Storehouse problem, from the beginning we have worked with state regulatory people at the Oklahoma Dept of Ag. We had one big controversy with them, but now we have a good working relationship. Thus there are some things we just can't sell, like raw milk, but this month we had 3000+ other items that people could buy. One of the sobering truths that my five going on six years of experience with the Oklahoma Food Coop has taught me is that local food systems, like everything else in agriculture, grow slowly. Six years into this, the only basic food products that are in enough supply that they never sell out are ground meat and wheat. Vegetables, dairy, eggs, all sell out quickly. So, as I have taken to saying lately, the time to start a local food system is BEFORE the food shortages hit. Our experience is that providing a ready market for local foods does increase local production. In our first couple of years, we regularly ran out of ground meats. Meat production, after all, doesn't turn on a dime. From calf to hamburger is at least 18 months, and may be closer to 2 years. When we started, our first producers had product based on their production decisions 12 to 24 months previously, when the Oklahoma Food Coop wasn't even a glimmer in my eye. A friend once told me that the great value of the post office was in its connections, the innumerable places where mail could enter the postal system, the places where it was sorted, and then the points of delivery (e.g. your post office box at the post office or on your house). The same is true of a local food system. it is not only a matter of the production, it is a question of distribution. How does the food get to the customer? One million people in Oklahoma City can't drive to farms and buy food at the farmgate. So what a local food coop does is increase the density of connections. Food enters our system via producers traveling to OKC, often carrying products of more than one producer, where they are sorted and then go out to 37 pickup sites. As we grow, we will develop additional points of entry, sorting, and delivery. I haven't a clue as to what that will look like, but that's fine, because I don't need to know that right now. When we get there, we will have adapted and grown -- organically, from the grassroots. I do spend some time thinking about surge capacity, but surge is limited by product. We could surge wheat "relatively" easily, but surging distribution of ground meat is limited by the capacity of the local processing plants our producers use. So there is lots to consider and much to do, and procrastination is always the thief of time. It was a great experience to get back from North Dakota (where I gave a presentation on the Oklahoma Food Coop), just in time for the January delivery day of our coop, and then when catching up on the internet news to see this story from Sharon and all the great comments. . .

Regarding the Manna Storehouse problem, from the beginning we have worked with state regulatory people at the Oklahoma Dept of Ag. We had one big controversy with them, but now we have a good working relationship. Thus there are some things we just can’t sell, like raw milk, but this month we had 3000+ other items that people could buy.

One of the sobering truths that my five going on six years of experience with the Oklahoma Food Coop has taught me is that local food systems, like everything else in agriculture, grow slowly. Six years into this, the only basic food products that are in enough supply that they never sell out are ground meat and wheat. Vegetables, dairy, eggs, all sell out quickly. So, as I have taken to saying lately, the time to start a local food system is BEFORE the food shortages hit.

Our experience is that providing a ready market for local foods does increase local production. In our first couple of years, we regularly ran out of ground meats. Meat production, after all, doesn’t turn on a dime. From calf to hamburger is at least 18 months, and may be closer to 2 years. When we started, our first producers had product based on their production decisions 12 to 24 months previously, when the Oklahoma Food Coop wasn’t even a glimmer in my eye.

A friend once told me that the great value of the post office was in its connections, the innumerable places where mail could enter the postal system, the places where it was sorted, and then the points of delivery (e.g. your post office box at the post office or on your house).

The same is true of a local food system. it is not only a matter of the production, it is a question of distribution. How does the food get to the customer? One million people in Oklahoma City can’t drive to farms and buy food at the farmgate. So what a local food coop does is increase the density of connections. Food enters our system via producers traveling to OKC, often carrying products of more than one producer, where they are sorted and then go out to 37 pickup sites. As we grow, we will develop additional points of entry, sorting, and delivery. I haven’t a clue as to what that will look like, but that’s fine, because I don’t need to know that right now. When we get there, we will have adapted and grown — organically, from the grassroots. I do spend some time thinking about surge capacity, but surge is limited by product. We could surge wheat “relatively” easily, but surging distribution of ground meat is limited by the capacity of the local processing plants our producers use.

So there is lots to consider and much to do, and procrastination is always the thief of time.

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By: Pony http://sharonastyk.com/2009/01/15/strategies-for-community-food-security-the-local-foods-coop/#comment-16536 Pony Mon, 19 Jan 2009 07:12:58 +0000 http://sharonastyk.com/2009/01/15/strategies-for-community-food-security-the-local-foods-coop/#comment-16536 Some of you might be interested in exploring the website of the co-op I belong to. It is Puget Consumers Co-op, now called "PCC Natural Markets" (http://www.pccnaturalmarkets.com ) . It's in the Seattle area and is an example of a "mature" co-op. It began in 1953. I have been a member for about 30 years. They have grown to 9 attractive permanent stores, 5 in Seattle and 4 in the near suburbs but PCC still does all the things they did back in the 70s and then some, including promoting sustainability, supporting food banks and watching the product sources very carefully. They are one of the many treasures of this area. If you are building a co-op yourself, you might want to read PCC's history which you won't find linked on the main website. Just add "about/history.html" to the main URL and you'll get it. Some of you might be interested in exploring the website of the co-op I belong to. It is Puget Consumers Co-op, now called “PCC Natural Markets” (http://www.pccnaturalmarkets.com ) . It’s in the Seattle area and is an example of a “mature” co-op. It began in 1953. I have been a member for about 30 years.

They have grown to 9 attractive permanent stores, 5 in Seattle and 4 in the near suburbs but PCC still does all the things they did back in the 70s and then some, including promoting sustainability, supporting food banks and watching the product sources very carefully. They are one of the many treasures of this area.

If you are building a co-op yourself, you might want to read PCC’s history which you won’t find linked on the main website. Just add “about/history.html” to the main URL and you’ll get it.

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By: Sharon http://sharonastyk.com/2009/01/15/strategies-for-community-food-security-the-local-foods-coop/#comment-16532 Sharon Sun, 18 Jan 2009 14:15:21 +0000 http://sharonastyk.com/2009/01/15/strategies-for-community-food-security-the-local-foods-coop/#comment-16532 BoysMom makes a major point - the food coop I belong to makes an effort to make things affordable, including offering food for volunteer hours that returns much more than I could earn, but the money is in the high end cheeses, and that's what's been expanded. Now I love my local food coop, but I think Bob's model is substantively different than the coops that don't emphasize local food products or local economies. It isn't that I'm dissing national groups or other bulk buying options, but IMHO, the local coop model has the most potential. As for the Manna storehouse raid - I agree this is a major potential problem - on the other hand, from what I gather on the subject, they explicitly declined to admit that any kind of food regulation applied to them. That's probalby not a good opening strategy. Sharon BoysMom makes a major point - the food coop I belong to makes an effort to make things affordable, including offering food for volunteer hours that returns much more than I could earn, but the money is in the high end cheeses, and that’s what’s been expanded.

Now I love my local food coop, but I think Bob’s model is substantively different than the coops that don’t emphasize local food products or local economies. It isn’t that I’m dissing national groups or other bulk buying options, but IMHO, the local coop model has the most potential.

As for the Manna storehouse raid - I agree this is a major potential problem - on the other hand, from what I gather on the subject, they explicitly declined to admit that any kind of food regulation applied to them. That’s probalby not a good opening strategy.

Sharon

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By: Liz http://sharonastyk.com/2009/01/15/strategies-for-community-food-security-the-local-foods-coop/#comment-16530 Liz Sun, 18 Jan 2009 01:35:50 +0000 http://sharonastyk.com/2009/01/15/strategies-for-community-food-security-the-local-foods-coop/#comment-16530 Here in Virginia we have many food co-ops, some operating as actual retail stores and some as buying clubs. Some of the buying clubs do concentrate on higher-end products like pastured beef, pork and eggs, but many others are operated by churches or other charitable groups and help the increasing numbers of people who can't even buy supermarket food any more. Some are set up as 501c corporations and are able to take food stamps, and some are just loose associations of like-minded people who have gotten together to provide a community service. Ani mentioned about grocery store food becoming more expensive as transportation costs increase. The farmer I buy our meat and eggs from (and where I have a herdshare) is often sold out of ground beef and the other less expensive cuts because his price is now competitive with grocery store meat prices. I suspect we'll see more and more of this as fuel prices begin to increase again. Here in Virginia we have many food co-ops, some operating as actual retail stores and some as buying clubs. Some of the buying clubs do concentrate on higher-end products like pastured beef, pork and eggs, but many others are operated by churches or other charitable groups and help the increasing numbers of people who can’t even buy supermarket food any more. Some are set up as 501c corporations and are able to take food stamps, and some are just loose associations of like-minded people who have gotten together to provide a community service.

Ani mentioned about grocery store food becoming more expensive as transportation costs increase. The farmer I buy our meat and eggs from (and where I have a herdshare) is often sold out of ground beef and the other less expensive cuts because his price is now competitive with grocery store meat prices. I suspect we’ll see more and more of this as fuel prices begin to increase again.

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By: M.Squirrel http://sharonastyk.com/2009/01/15/strategies-for-community-food-security-the-local-foods-coop/#comment-16526 M.Squirrel Sat, 17 Jan 2009 18:59:10 +0000 http://sharonastyk.com/2009/01/15/strategies-for-community-food-security-the-local-foods-coop/#comment-16526 I was also thinking about the Manna storehouse raid as the biggest drawback to a food coop. However, I have heard from people who live in Ohio that Ohio's agricultural department are completely bought and paid for by Big Business, which would be the ONLY explanation that the storehouse was a target. We the People has become We the Corporations. Soon, it looks like we won't be able to grow a tomato in our back yard without a special permit. I was also thinking about the Manna storehouse raid as the biggest drawback to a food coop. However, I have heard from people who live in Ohio that Ohio’s agricultural department are completely bought and paid for by Big Business, which would be the ONLY explanation that the storehouse was a target. We the People has become We the Corporations.

Soon, it looks like we won’t be able to grow a tomato in our back yard without a special permit.

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By: Berkshire http://sharonastyk.com/2009/01/15/strategies-for-community-food-security-the-local-foods-coop/#comment-16523 Berkshire Sat, 17 Jan 2009 13:19:54 +0000 http://sharonastyk.com/2009/01/15/strategies-for-community-food-security-the-local-foods-coop/#comment-16523 I think the real force to change the way we acquire food will be economic - and not the local organic movement. Most folks will start gardening and this will put a damper on local vegetable farming. Grains and other such staples have always been non-local. Here in the Western Mass. Berkshires we are undergoing an "Appalachianization" with local mills and industries closing. Local farming consisted mainly of dairy and beef. The farms died out in the 50s due to economics of scale. My grandfather was almost self-sufficient farming in the 30s but that a story for another day. Folks today travel 30 miles or more for employment. The only local employment seems to be school bus driver. Small stores have all but disappeared as well as the local eateries. It is an ongoing and accelerating process. The closet food store is 18 miles. I believe the move back to local general stores and co-ops will become economic as the cost (and lack) of travel will eventually rule the day. I don't think that this transition will happen in the near term. The present economic and energy depletion concerns will have to play itself out first. I think the real force to change the way we acquire food will be economic - and not the local organic movement. Most folks will start gardening and this will put a damper on local vegetable farming. Grains and other such staples have always been non-local.

Here in the Western Mass. Berkshires we are undergoing an “Appalachianization” with local mills and industries closing. Local farming consisted mainly of dairy and beef. The farms died out in the 50s due to economics of scale. My grandfather was almost self-sufficient farming in the 30s but that a story for another day.

Folks today travel 30 miles or more for employment. The only local employment seems to be school bus driver. Small stores have all but disappeared as well as the local eateries. It is an ongoing and accelerating process.

The closet food store is 18 miles. I believe the move back to local general stores and co-ops will become economic as the cost (and lack) of travel will eventually rule the day. I don’t think that this transition will happen in the near term. The present economic and energy depletion concerns will have to play itself out first.

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By: Alan http://sharonastyk.com/2009/01/15/strategies-for-community-food-security-the-local-foods-coop/#comment-16521 Alan Sat, 17 Jan 2009 07:19:35 +0000 http://sharonastyk.com/2009/01/15/strategies-for-community-food-security-the-local-foods-coop/#comment-16521 I can certainly understand the concerns of people who think the food sold in food co-ops and natural food stores is too expensive. In many cases, organic foods (particularly processed ones) are considerably more expensive than their conventional counterparts. The real question, though, is not, "Why are organic foods so expensive?", it's "Why are conventional foods so cheap?" Conventional foods are cheap because the enormous costs (environmental, health, energy, labor) of their production are externalized. Ever since World War II, the proportion of American family incomes spent on food has been declining while the costs of health care, environmental degradation, taxes to subsidize cheap energy, and welfare to support cheap labor have all been going up dramatically. Organic foods are produced mostly without any of these subsidies. Their costs are internalized as they should be and reflected in their (mostly) higher prices. Meanwhile, American families have let themselves be driven into a trap where they are dependent on that "cheap" conventional food. This is a case where people who want a change to sustainable agriculture and food production in this country have to "bite the bullet" and spend more for food. Buying club-style co-ops such as the Oklahoma model are great for people who have the time and energy to put into such efforts but they shouldn't expect to get organically-grown local pinto beans for less than the price of conventional beans at Costco. Storefront-style co-ops with overhead and staff to pay may not always be able to sell their organic foods as cheaply as buying clubs with no employees and little overhead, but a great many people don't have the time to devote to buying clubs and need to be able to shop at stores where they can get local, organic food even if it costs more. I can certainly understand the concerns of people who think the food sold in food co-ops and natural food stores is too expensive. In many cases, organic foods (particularly processed ones) are considerably more expensive than their conventional counterparts.

The real question, though, is not, “Why are organic foods so expensive?”, it’s “Why are conventional foods so cheap?”

Conventional foods are cheap because the enormous costs (environmental, health, energy, labor) of their production are externalized. Ever since World War II, the proportion of American family incomes spent on food has been declining while the costs of health care, environmental degradation, taxes to subsidize cheap energy, and welfare to support cheap labor have all been going up dramatically.

Organic foods are produced mostly without any of these subsidies. Their costs are internalized as they should be and reflected in their (mostly) higher prices.

Meanwhile, American families have let themselves be driven into a trap where they are dependent on that “cheap” conventional food.

This is a case where people who want a change to sustainable agriculture and food production in this country have to “bite the bullet” and spend more for food.

Buying club-style co-ops such as the Oklahoma model are great for people who have the time and energy to put into such efforts but they shouldn’t expect to get organically-grown local pinto beans for less than the price of conventional beans at Costco.

Storefront-style co-ops with overhead and staff to pay may not always be able to sell their organic foods as cheaply as buying clubs with no employees and little overhead, but a great many people don’t have the time to devote to buying clubs and need to be able to shop at stores where they can get local, organic food even if it costs more.

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By: WNC Observer http://sharonastyk.com/2009/01/15/strategies-for-community-food-security-the-local-foods-coop/#comment-16518 WNC Observer Sat, 17 Jan 2009 01:21:29 +0000 http://sharonastyk.com/2009/01/15/strategies-for-community-food-security-the-local-foods-coop/#comment-16518 Sharon: Thanks so much for this article. I'm a pretty non-idiological person, but if there is one thing I am idiological about, it is being in favor of cooperatives of any sort, wherever they can be planted and blossom. That being said, I am afraid that all is not right with the food co-op movement as it has been for the past few decades. As RobynM explained, the first food co-ops were focused on helping poor households to stretch their limited food budgets, and to help them obtain healthy, wholesome food. They were a tool of ordinary working people to resist exploitation by powerful corporate interests that were trying to make money by forcing their customers to buy unhealthy food at exhorbitant prices. That is something we still need today, and I suspect we will need it even more in the future. That has not really been the focus of the "2nd wave" food co-ops, unfortunately. The newer food co-ops have done a great job of making available to their patrons various specialized "natural foods", "health foods", and organic foods that are not usually available in most supermarkets. That's fine, I have nothing against that. Unfortunately, most of those types of foods tend to be pretty expensive, as BoysMom noted. That's fine for those few who are fortunate enough to live upscale lives and don't need to worry about how much they spend on food. What about the rest of us, though? I do not say this intending to be critical of the very idea of food co-ops. I love co-ops and want the main street of every town to be filled with them. But what I do want to do is to call them back to their original mission and vision - a vision which they have unfortunately all to often lost sight of. Sharon: Thanks so much for this article. I’m a pretty non-idiological person, but if there is one thing I am idiological about, it is being in favor of cooperatives of any sort, wherever they can be planted and blossom.

That being said, I am afraid that all is not right with the food co-op movement as it has been for the past few decades. As RobynM explained, the first food co-ops were focused on helping poor households to stretch their limited food budgets, and to help them obtain healthy, wholesome food. They were a tool of ordinary working people to resist exploitation by powerful corporate interests that were trying to make money by forcing their customers to buy unhealthy food at exhorbitant prices.

That is something we still need today, and I suspect we will need it even more in the future.

That has not really been the focus of the “2nd wave” food co-ops, unfortunately. The newer food co-ops have done a great job of making available to their patrons various specialized “natural foods”, “health foods”, and organic foods that are not usually available in most supermarkets. That’s fine, I have nothing against that. Unfortunately, most of those types of foods tend to be pretty expensive, as BoysMom noted. That’s fine for those few who are fortunate enough to live upscale lives and don’t need to worry about how much they spend on food. What about the rest of us, though?

I do not say this intending to be critical of the very idea of food co-ops. I love co-ops and want the main street of every town to be filled with them. But what I do want to do is to call them back to their original mission and vision - a vision which they have unfortunately all to often lost sight of.

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