Keeping the Community in Healthy Food Access

Accessing fresh, healthy, and affordable foods in rural communities can be a real struggle. Helping people in Big Stone County build those healthy, local food systems has been my work for the past couple of years, and we have seen some good results from it, along with some economic revitalization in the local food sector. There’s always more to be done.

Production of and access to fresh, affordable produce in a rural “food desert” is a problem with many facets: producers cope with weather stresses, low prices, and lack of markets for their product; retailers deal with quality, pricing, and sourcing issues, and consumers may not always be able to get what they want for a price they’re comfortable paying.

So, it seems like any strategy that can help community members increase their access to and intake of fresh fruits and veggies at an affordable price would be a real boon. Bountiful Baskets, a buying club with chapters across the western U.S. and now starting up in Ortonville, purports to do just that. For a $15 (or $25 for the organic option) “financial contribution,” local residents will be able to place an order online for a large portion of produce and pick it up every other week.

Bountiful Baskets calls itself a “Food Co-op,” and its local organizers refer to it as a “non-profit volunteer co-op.” But Bountiful Baskets does not appear to be incorporated as a co-op nor registered as a non-profit in any of the several western states’ records I searched. It was started in 2009 as a for-profit corporation in Arizona, and it was administratively dissolved by the state in 2011 for failure to file annual reports.

Still, Bountiful Baskets organizers refer to the service in the language used by its administrators, and those administrators are careful to indicate that you are not “ordering” the merchandise, you’re contributing to a pool of money to, well, order something with a whole bunch of other people:

“Making a contribution is sometimes referred to as ‘ordering’, but this is not accurate. We call it contributing or participating, because Bountiful Baskets is not a business that you buy from, but rather a co-op where we all pool our money to buy things together.”

So, why does it matter that they are not incorporated as an actual co-op or non-profit? Because being a real co-op actually means something beyond putting your money in a collective pot to purchase a basket of goods–specifically, a co-op is a member-owned, democratically controlled enterprise that operates according to a specific set of principles. The Granary Food Co-op in Ortonville is one such incorporated cooperative, serving its member-owners and community since 1979.

Being a non-profit actually means something, too. Actual non-profits must report how their money is spent–but Bountiful Baskets is silent on the subject of staff, profits, or anything fiscally related other than the above-quoted “contribution” piece. Being a non-profit does not simply mean that you’re relying on local people to do work without being paid, which is a part of the Bountiful scheme.

Bountiful Baskets and its organizers talk about this service being a great community-building enterprise, and there certainly does seem to be a sense of camaraderie among the volunteers at pick-up sites from the comments and reviews I saw online. But, no money is retained in the local community from these online “contributions.” Food from Mexico and the southwestern U.S. comes in on a truck and gets sorted out and taken home by individual “contributors,” bypassing local grocery stores, local farmers markets, and yes, the local food co-op.

In short, Bountiful Baskets is simply a buying club–and one in which you’ll for the most part be purchasing things you can already get locally. Calling it a co-op or a non-profit or comparing it to a CSA (you never know what you’ll get!) or farmers market (all that produce!) is simply disingenuous–capitalizing on the good feelings people have for those things while not actually doing the things that make people feel good about them.

This is not to disparage those unpaid local organizers attempting to set up chapters in their communities–I can certainly empathize with the strain of sourcing good food on a budget–it is simply to tell the truth about what this business is and what it isn’t.

And it is also to ask specific questions: Where do the “contributions” go? Where does the food come from? Who is making money from this enterprise, and how much are they making?

Yes, ordering through Bountiful Baskets can save you money. But the money you’re saving over buying locally is money that pays for local jobs and local infrastructure in your community. It’s money that keeps the rent paid, the lights on, the coolers running, and the farmers farming. It’s money that pays for employees and the merchandise they stock on the shelves.

Building local food systems and increasing access to healthy food isn’t just about the food itself–it’s also about the role of healthy food and local grocery stores in a strong and diversified local economy. Sourcing cheaper produce by circumventing local retailers may be a boost for your family’s budget, but it should not be confused with real strategies for building and investing in community.

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The People’s Business

I get tired of hearing that everything should be run like a business.

Government? Should be run like a business! Education? Run it like a business! As if the world and everything we do in it were so simple that one particular way of, well, “doing business” would be applicable in every single situation one could possibly think of.

There is a reason that institutions like public education and government are recognized as operating in a different sector than business (and aren’t, so far as I know, announcing IPOs). Because they aren’t businesses, and running them like most businesses (that is, on the basis of profit) isn’t an effective way to deliver the things they’re mandated to deliver.

As a friend of mine wisely quipped, schools don’t have the luxury of “firing” their under-performing students–the ones that may put a drag on test scores and achievement rates. I’d add that governments, even when they’re tightening their budget belts, don’t have the option of doing away entirely with expensive basic services. Moving overseas might be a little tricky, too.

Certainly, government and public education need fiscal oversight. But, in the end, their mandate isn’t about making money for their shareholders, it’s about providing specific services to the citizens who pay for those services through their tax dollars.

But, the idea that everything should be run like a business is pretty entrenched among a particular set.  So, if we’re not going to get everyone over that idea, perhaps we just need to suggest different business models.  The models endorsed by most people I’ve heard making this comment seem to be either the single or partnership models or the S or C corp models. That is, all the profits (rewards, services, etc.) end up in the hands of the owners and/or the shareholders who’ve invested the most to begin with.

This might seem fair and just in much of the business world, but what happens when we apply these models to governments and education? Suddenly, the road by so-and-so’s house gets plowed, but not ours. The new confinement dairy operation locates next to (and stinks up) the old neighborhood. The school in the less affluent part of town is falling apart, but the one in the more moneyed area is sparkling new. Social unrest increases due to cronyism and favoritism.

I’d like to suggest that, if a segment of the population is going to continue insisting that our public endeavors should be run like businesses, there is a business model that works better for ensuring democracy and equity in those endeavors. That model is the cooperative.

According to the International Cooperative Alliance, “A co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.”

Granted, not all of our citizens would admit that they’re “united voluntarily”–but then some people who steadfastly refuse to be part of society move off to the wilderness to create their own. The rest of us, when it comes down to it, realize that we’re in this thing together–sink or swim. And because we pay our taxes and call someplace home (however temporarily), we’re participating more-or-less actively in our shared, democratically-controlled enterprises of government and public education.

But maybe you’re not that familiar with cooperative businesses. Maybe you think this is a low-rent model that works only on a small scale or is just an agriculture or health-food related venture? Allow me to school you:

Values-based, community-supported and member-controlled, modern cooperatives have grown steadily since their inception in the late 1800s. Today, the top 300 cooperatives, or Global 300, generate as much revenue as the world’s ninth largest economy, or the economy of Spain. Meanwhile, new research shows that cooperatives worldwide have three times as many members as traditional businesses have shareholders — and provide 20% more jobs. [Reeder, Jessica. “Co-ops are Big: Charles Gould on the Int’l Year of the Co-op.” Shareable: Work & Enterprise, 2-13-12.]

Coops are not just farmers’ elevators, rural utilities, and grocery stores. They’re also banks (credit unions, that is), retailers (who work together with other retailers to maximize their wholesale purchasing power–like IPC pharmacies, True Value Hardware, and Best Western hotels), and worker-owned coops such as Arizmendi Bakery, Isthmus Engineering & Manufacturing, Citybikes, and Equal Exchange.

There are producer and distributor coops, housing coops, local newspapers run as cooperatives, and even parks that are cooperatively-owned and operated (right here in Minnesota!).

Cooperatives, like good government and education systems, run on principle before (no, not necessarily instead of) profit.

And what are those principles? Glad you asked!

  1. Voluntary and Open Membership: “Co-operatives are voluntary organizations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.”
  2. Democratic Member Control: One member; one vote–sound familiar?
  3. Member Economic Participation: “Members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their co-operative. At least part of that capital is usually the common property of the co-operative.”
  4. Autonomy and Independence: “If they enter to agreements with other organizations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, [cooperatives] do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their co-operative autonomy.”
  5. Education, Training, and Information: “Co-operatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their co-operatives. They inform the general public – particularly young people and opinion leaders – about the nature and benefits of co-operation.”
  6. Cooperation Among Cooperatives: “Co-operatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the co-operative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.”
  7. Concern for Community: “Co-operatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members” [quoted material taken from the ICA’s Statement on the Co-operative Identity].

As much as I’m sick of the simplistic, “run everything like a business” credo, I guess if we must operate our public endeavors as such, this looks like a pretty decent model to me–notwithstanding the “voluntary membership” principle in the face of death-and-taxes inevitabilities.

So, the next time you encounter the, we-should-be-running-our-[insert public institution here]- more-like-a-business ideology, say, “Yes! You’re absolutely right! We should run it like a cooperative!”

And then be prepared to teach them what that means. After all, cooperation is about education, training, and information, isn’t it?