I recently attended the Neighboring Food Co-ops’ Association annual meeting, and was captivated by the keynote speaker, Ruth Tyson, who is the Coalitions Coordinator for the Food and Environment program of the Union of Concerned Scientists. She was able to draw some very clear pictures of our agricultural food system and its prejudice. Ms. Tyson highlighted three relevant themes: Just, Equitable, and Sustainable. Finally, it seems we are beginning to connect the lines between food sustainability and social justice, and to illustrate this to a larger audience than before, as the results of consolidation and government misdirection become sadly obvious to most anyone who is paying attention. Her main takeaways for us were these:
- There are many problems with our food system, and the impacts often affect communities of color disproportionately.
- We must advocate for policies that promote sustainable and equitable food production, procurement, and distribution by minimizing harm and increasing good.
- Co-ops occupy a critical role with their advocacy potential, purchasing power, ownership/employment opportunities, and distribution of fresh healthy affordable food.
- Cooperative development, ownership, and operations must be inclusive, centering restoration and reparation to ensure we don’t perpetuate the inequities persistent throughout our food economy.
Ms. Tyson shared with us a series of maps of the continental United States, beginning with farms owned and farmed by native Americans, followed by African Americans, Asians, Latinos, and women. She showed us the distribution of farms by size. Finally, she showed the picture I have shared below, of where, to whom, and for what, the federal agriculture subsidies live. Then she showed us the actual crops that these farms produce, and no surprise here, fruit and vegetables were seriously underrepresented. Corn and soy are king. (Also below.)
In thinking about things that we can do to actively move the needle to a different kind of food system, visitors from Equal Exchange set up a discussion in our own Community Room in late March. They too reflected on the disparity of our food economy, especially globally, and called for individuals to step up and take action. They are publicizing a summit June 20-22 in Norton, MA, to further explore and inspire all the ways in which citizen action can have effect on the state of our food system (for more info: https://equalexchange.coop/summit). Further, they have called on our help to support a bill introduced in Congress, the Booker Pocan Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act, which is seeking to slow the pace of hyper-consolidation that we have seen in the food industry over the last decade, effectively deepening the difficulties that farm workers, farmers, grocers, and consumers have experienced. Our Co-op will certainly support this legislation, as will many if not all of the co-ops around the country.
There is much to do, and it will take time. It begins, however, with your local co-op. If you yourself are not spending your grocery dollars in an organization that values its employees and its producers, and returns a large portion of its revenue to its community, then your habits might be a good place to start. Once here, think about your choices in the aisles. Yes, we are messy, we humans. We may make choices based on packaging one day, and price another, but in the end, we are responsible for our actions, and they have real consequences. At least try to move your own needle a bit towards a more sustainable food system. If a few more of us begin to pay attention, we can make more change and leave our descendants a worthwhile future.
Do you have something to add? Please drop me a line or stop me in the store. Tell me about some of the thinking you have been doing on this topic. I’ll see you in the aisles!
By Sabine Rhyne, General Manager