The Role of Co-ops in the Food Justice Movement

Apr 23, 2014 No Comments by

In an increasingly privatized society, local food options are becoming increasingly challenging to find by the day.  To maximize profit, the food United States citizens buy and consume is shipped from all around the country, and studies show that about a quarter is imported from overseas.  Aside from the health issues with having to add pesticides to grow produce faster and preservatives so that the food will last longer, non-local food also contributes to corporate profits as opposed to local economy. In order to create an organization that went against big-business and supported instead of destroyed local, small-scale, farmers, a non-profit known as the Co-op Directory service began in 1999.

This egalitarian organization was founded on the idea of shared wealth and the importance of localism.  A co-op is loosely defined as a voluntary organization composed of a group of individuals joined for their mutual benefit. There are many different types of co-ops but food co-ops are common, with at least one located in every state with the exception of Oklahoma.

Co-ops are member-sustained, which means not only are they democratic volunteer associations, but these grocery stores have no owners besides the members.  Instead, they are non-profit organizations where the profit is returned to the members/owners in the form of a small discount when purchasing food. In addition to an egalitarian structure, there are two main characteristics that co-ops emphasize, organic and local.  The USDA defines organic as a production system that “indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” Joe Damiano, Bulk Department Manager at Ithaca, New York’s GreenStar co-op describes local food as anything from 50-100 miles away, and “regional” food anything from 1-2 states away.  He says that while most grocery stores provide food from outside the regional sphere, co-ops strive to boost local economy, support local farmers, and reduce carbon footprint by providing mostly local food.

Because they strive to support local workers yet are member-owned, items at co-ops tend to cost significantly more than items at chain stores.  Damiano says to offset this difference, there is a discount program that some co-ops, Greenstar included, that provide a 15% discount with proof of services like food stamps or medicaid. The high prices of produce especially deters many consumers who want access to healthier food but are unable to pay more.  Therefore, although co-ops like GreenStar attempt to provide easy-access to organic food, the price, as well lack of certain foods when they are not regionally available, makes it difficult for some shoppers to willingly spend their money at co-ops.  When it comes to providing local, organic food, co-ops are paving the way– but at what cost?


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