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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Open Thread: Produce Giveaways

A friend of mine and I had a lively discussion yesterday on the topic of giving away the excess bounty of one’s garden.  I’ve been thinking about that subject for some time now and wondering where to draw the line between giveaways that help those in need (and help make good neighbors and friends), and giveaways that harm the livelihood of local farmers.

This probably isn’t a huge problem in more urban areas–I’ll be asking about that tonight at the Sustainable Agriculture Chat (#sustagchat) that happens every Sunday night, 7-9pm CST on Twitter (tonight’s topic is urban agriculture)–but in more rural areas that have farmers markets, I’m thinking it can get to be somewhat of a problem.

In towns of a certain size (that is, big enough to have a farmers market, but small enough that a lot of folks still grow their own gardens), a common type of comment vendors hear at the market is, “Oh, I don’t have to buy that, my friend gives it to me,” or, “You’re charging that much? I can get it from my neighbor for free!”

This is easily shrugged off unless there are a number of other customers around, at which point the vendor just hopes that one of them will chime in and say, “Well, it’s pretty nice that the rest of us can get it at this price, or get it at all!” There are few responses the vendor can make to those types of comments other than, “Oh, that’s nice,” or “Good for you.”

I don’t have too much of a problem with giveaways, and really, it’s a tricky ground for me to even comment on.  For instance, if my boss’ husband (whose backyard bounty gives me terrible garden envy) wants to give away basil to my good produce customers at the local pizzeria, even if that results in less sales for me, what exactly am I going to say about it?

Too, I want my friends at the local pizzeria to do well, and if getting a little free produce helps them, I certainly don’t want to deny them that help because I love them and their pizza, and I don’t want them to stop buying from me because I grump about them getting something for free.  I hate that stodgy, “no one should get anything for nothing” attitude in other people–sometimes a freebie really is a help–financially or just in developing relationships.

My working assumption is this: if someone has the time to grow a big enough garden to give a LOT of produce away (enough so that it’s going to make a dent in the livelihood of local farmers), then they probably have enough time to come and sell at the local farmers market (or to harvest and hire/ask someone to come and sell for them).

If they have enough money so that the proceeds from that plentiful produce are not a necessary part of their household means, perhaps an arrangement by which they donate the produce to someone to sell for them would be optimal–that person has a job, and they make money by selling produce,  as well as meeting their fellow community members, and getting some good life skills in customer relations and simple math.

Too, if the person with a large excess of produce wants to sell that produce themselves, they could certainly donate the money they make to a charity (say, the food pantry) if the money is not an issue for them.  This is assuming that the town is small enough that a large donation of fresh produce to the food pantry might in large part go bad before it is used by those in need.

A possible problem with this scheme is, of course, that a person with excess might sell the produce they’d otherwise be giving away for prices that undercut the other farmers at the market, thus affecting the livelihood of local farmers in another (and perhaps more easily identifiable) way.

Our market does have measures in our vendor contract to discourage undercutting on prices (I would guess most do–but perhaps not small markets in more rural areas), and in my own case, I’ve found I can charge what I need to, even if my prices are a bit higher than the next vendor, and my loyal customers still come, knowing from experience that my product is a quality one.

I wanted to put this discussion out there for others to comment on…what is your view on produce giveaways?  Is it a problem in your area?  Do you see it as an obstacle for starting/sustaining a farmers market in your area (or an obstacle for vendors being successful)? Thoughts, please!

Worried about your Local Economy?

I’m stealing a couple tidbits of Cory Allen Heidelberger’s post this week on The Madville Times. These statistics came from a recent Northwest Area Foundation/Lake Research Partners Report entitled “Community Perspectives on Poverty Among Adults in South Dakota.”

  1. 50% of us rate our local economies as “only fair” (33%) or “poor” (17%).
  2. 58% of us are worried that our local economies will get worse this year. Rural folks are the most pessimistic among us, with 65% worried about worse local economic times ahead.

As I commented on Cory’s post, I do not think that our local economies must necessarily follow the same downturns as the national or global economies do. I would even argue that especially in a place like this, a strong local economy might have to be de-coupled in some ways from the national economy in order to thrive.

South Dakota has long been treated as a “colony” of the coasts, and of the world. We export our raw materials (mostly agricultural in nature), and they are manufactured and trucked back to us, with little of the profit going into the pockets of those working to “extract,” or produce those materials.

While this relationship does fuel a large part of our state’s economy, there is certainly room, and I would argue room must be made in our state for smaller-scale economies that sustain us–give us work and provide us with the fruits of those labors without having the middleman (or woman) siphoning off most of the profit. In my own mangling of the poet-philosopher Utah Phillips’ words: “selling our own stuff back to us for the sake of a greasy buck. That’s dumb.”

Another issue I see working in these small “colonial” towns is the local economic development organizations whose members would rather feather their caps with the “accomplishment” of bringing in the latest shiny new Mall-Mart than to engage in the messy and difficult process of encouraging dozens of “little guys,” which is what they ought to be doing. But, you know, that’s hard work.

There is unfortunately less glory in fostering and boostering small local businesses, though these small businesses will likely contribute more over time to the stability and sustainability of the local economy than their big-cardboard-check-and-a-photo-op competitors.

I hope that the concerns recorded in this recent report will translate into positive action that alleviates them. The best action you can take if you’re worried about your local economy is identify ways in which you can focus your everyday spending to best benefit the local economy. That doesn’t mean you can never go to WalMart, but it does mean taking stock of your everyday needs and looking around your community for options and investments.

Because I am a farmer and I grow food, my focus is generally on what’s to eat. Your town may or may not have a few different chain restaurants, but it likely also has a local diner or cafe or pizzeria. If you’re worried about your local economy, then focus your spending toward the mom-and-pop operations instead of Big Brother’s conglomerations.

Really, in terms of local economies, everyday spending is what counts. While a “field trip” to the farmers market is a start, marking your calendar and making a point to shop there first, every week of the season, is a real investment that pays off–for you and the farmers and the local economy.

During a local food talk on campus a couple months ago, I started a diagram mapping where money goes when spent at a big chain grocery store vs. my farmers market table. The diagram of the chain was fairly simple–a little money for labor stayed local, the rest left the community. On the other side, the whiteboard was a complexity of arrows and circles, illustrating what can happen when a citizen spends money at a local business that, in order to better survive, supports other local businesses.

That small-town economic complexity is the key to local economic survival. Economic developers that cut ribbons and smile for the camera and bring in the big chains are whistling through the graveyard of the local economy–sure, they’re developing all kinds of economies–by draining the resources of their own.