Why we need a food-security cooperative

By David Parkinson

A late huckleberry clings on into the autumn

A late huckleberry clings on into the autumn

In a previous post I wrote about the need to start talking and thinking about how we might address some of our challenges through collective action. Lately, the idea of starting up cooperatives seems to be cropping up more and more frequently, one of its manifestations being the new Working Group on Cooperatives under the auspices of the BC Food Systems Network. The purpose of this working group is to act as a provincial clearinghouse for groups looking at the cooperative corporate structure as a way to work on food security in the community. And there is a conversation going on locally within the Transition Town Powell River (TTPR) group about the role that cooperatives might play in taking action on the challenges posed by resource depletion, climate chaos, and economic downturn.

Here is something I wrote about my vision for a food-security cooperative in a recent email thread among some of the members of TTPR:

I can see a local cooperative which exists to identify potential sources of common wealth (gleaning, foraging, growing, fishing, hunting) and create a supply chain between provider and consumer which pays the former with dignity and rewards the latter with delicious food. I like the idea of creating a sort of free-floating laboratory of different projects: so if one person wants to gather fruit and make wine, and another person wants to buy bulk ingredients and make fresh pasta, and another person wants to create a ‘cow-op’, then all they need to do is present their idea to the members of the cooperative and see who wants a piece of the action. The co-op exists to make sure that everyone plays fair, money is tracked responsibly, decisions are made in a correct way, and other policies are followed (e.g., I strongly believe in paying a share into the community via charities, soup kitchens, food bank, etc.).

Just over a year ago, when I was engaged in a previous series of conversations about starting up a local food cooperative, I put some of my thoughts down on paper. I’m hauling this paper out now since the signs are propitious that we can start a conversation about this. There is not much in it that I would change after a year of letting it sit and ferment; but I’m sure that we can think of ideas that should be in here. I intend to use next Sunday’s Celebration of Local Food event, co-sponsored by Transition Town Powell River and the Powell River Food Security Project, as an opportunity to advance the conversation about cooperatives a little bit.

This week’s post is more about the reasons for favouring cooperative solutions to the challenge of building a resilient regional food economy. Next week’s will address some of the projects that such a cooperative (or network of cooperatives) could tackle. I take for granted that there are good reasons for wanting to develop a regional food economy and start out by trying to figure out what some  of the pieces of that economic system might be. The central idea of a cooperative is that it makes the best possible use of limited resources, by finding ways of spreading them around — as opposed to the corporate model which aims to take abundant resources and make them artificially scarce so that their cash value is as artifically high as possible.

The shift to a more local food economy will take place on different scales: individual, family/household, group/neighbourhood, municipality, and region.

Individual

Individuals can participate in the local food economy by contributing skills, labour, or tools to the common effort. We will need more people with more skills contributing more labour, making use of common tools, and creating economic activity.

Family/household

At this scale, participation in the local food economy means providing for household food security: home gardens and food preservation and storage, in particular, are activities ideally suited for families and small groups.

Group/neighbourhood

At the scale of the larger group (e.g., church groups, service clubs) or neighbourhood, it becomes feasible to set up community efforts; e.g., community gardens, shared greenhouses, work parties, etc.

Municipality

The government of the City of Powell River has the power to affect the implementation of a local food economy, by imposing or relaxing regulations that affect people’s ability to produce and distribute food; e.g., regulations controlling animals in the city, growing and selling produce, composting, etc. The City is also a potentially valuable partner in funding food security initiatives which would benefit the whole City, such as community gardens, community and commercial kitchens, and so on.

Region

At the regional level, it makes sense to think about how to implement procedures for producing, storing, and distributing food that can serve the needs of the entire region, and possibly intersect with regional emergency preparedness, Area Agricultural Plans (AAPs), and other policies and processes that impact the region as a whole.

A cooperative or network of cooperatives should be able to organize efforts at whatever scale is appropriate. Since it is an enterprise with the mandate to serve the whole community equally and does not generate profit for a limited number of shareholders, a cooperative should be relatively immune from conflicts of interest or favouritism. Ideally, it can be everyone’s chosen vehicle for accomplishing the goal of building a local food economy.

This shift will require a high degree of cooperation, communication, and mobilization of shared resources (skills, labour, and tools).

We do not have enough of these resources available locally, and what we do have is not distributed equally throughout the community.

But we do have considerable resources available in the community: skilled and knowledgeable people, many of them elders; young people able and willing to work on building a local food economy; tools and resources such as land, rototillers, and greenhouses.

In order to build on what we have now, and start building more for the future, we need an organization to network in the community and provide stability and guidance towards a local food economy.

We cannot rely solely on government-funded or corporate solutions to make the shift quickly and broadly enough.

There are many community initiatives currently working on various aspects of a local food economy: the Farmers’ Institute, the Agricultural Association, the Food Security Project, the Fruit Tree Project, Good Food Box, Food Bank, 50-mile eat-local challenge, etc.

Many of these organizations and initiatives exist on scant and unreliable funding. Getting the work done depends on and commitment by voluntary associations and volunteer labour. It is difficult to assure continuity when organizations and the individuals within them are spread thin and constantly in search of funding.

For–profit corporations exist to provide a return on a capital investment. There is a place in the local food economy for many privately controlled businesses to prosper and provide valuable goods, services, and employment. But there is also a place for organizations which exist to provide a return to the entire community, in the form of food security and a stronger sense of community and common cause.

The ideal solution is to create an organization which democratically represents the interests of the entire community, is open to participation by anyone who wishes to contribute time or energy, and (crucially) is engaged in developing and sustaining itself from new economic activity within the community, rather than relying on funding from outside the community.

The community-building function of a cooperative is an essential part of our plan. People are isolated, powerless, and dependent on a globalized food industry that is out of their control. We aim to give people the tools they need to take control over their own food security and to exercise genuine democratic involvement in their community.

A cooperative or network of cooperatives is best able to marshal the resources and deploy them at the appropriate scales in order to develop a resilient local food economy.

Activities depend on three essential resources: skills, labour, and tools:

Skills are things that people know or know how to do.

Labour is the time and physical effort that people put into doing things.

Tools are the physical resources that people use in order to do things.

Skills

Collecting, organizing, and distributing information is going to be enormously important. For-profit enterprises typically make no explicit commitment to the free sharing of information; in fact, they often benefit from hoarding information. Our cooperative will make an explicit commitment to make information freely available to those who benefit from it.

The most effective way to transfer skills is to give people opportunities to work together. The cooperative should organize work parties and workshops that members can attend in order to acquire skills and knowledge by doing, rather than in a more academic setting.

Older people in the community are priceless resources. Many of them grew up in a time when it was common for families to grow and preserve some of their own food, and they are eager to pass these skills on to younger people.

A local resource library is one good way to give people access to information. A cooperative can easily take donations of books, old magazines, and other sources of information on any aspects of a local food economy. These resources can be housed somewhere, catalogued, and made available to members of the cooperative for free or for a nominal fee.

Labour

There is a huge amount of work involved in producing food and making it available to the community. We’ll need highly trained farmers able to use a variety of methods and work on different scales of production. We’ll need experts in preserving food for later use, whether this means freezing, drying, canning, pickling, or other methods. And we’ll need more people who know how to prepare delicious healthy meals from locally-produced ingredients. Much of the knowledge is out there in the community; we need to harness that knowledge and those skills and start finding ways of making them part of the local economy.

Building up areas of the local food economy that can support year-round, well-paid jobs is going to take some time and a good deal of experimentation and persistence. But as many people acknowledge, we must begin somewhere and constantly seek new opportunities for creating employment.

One promising area for job-creation is in maintenance of people’s food-producing gardens. It is possible that more people would be willing to grow food in their backyards if they were able to have the garden maintained when they are away on vacation.

The proven viability elsewhere of the SPIN Farming model (e.g., Victoria, Parksville/Qualicum, Vancouver, etc.) suggests that the cooperative might be able to provide members with jobs and services by using people’s properties for food production.

Tools

Tools comprise everything from books, hand tools, seeds, and compost bins, all the way up to large expensive resources such as rototillers, walk-in fridges, apple presses, and greenhouses. It is uneconomical and wasteful to expect people to have their own rototillers when a commonly owned one will suffice. Tools owned by the community, used for the benefit of the community, will allow us to develop a local food economy as efficiently as possible. And many of these tools are lying around waiting to be picked up, repaired, and made available.

There is no organization in the region which aims to provide people with greater access to the tools needed to help them become more self-reliant in food production. All that is needed is a storage space and a system that allows people to use these shared tools when they need to. A not-for-profit cooperative could also allow people to make tax-deductible donations of tools and other infrastructure. We believe that people would be happy to make donations for the benefit of the community.

We need to salvage as much as we can. It will almost always be cheaper to overhaul existing resources than to purchase or construct new ones. The region is full of abandoned vegetable gardens, greenhouses, tools, and other valuable resources. In the spirit of doing-it-yourself and creating minimal waste, we need to encourage as much salvage and re-use as possible.

Any thoughts? Feel free to leave a comment.

Next time: some of the things we might want a local food-security cooperative to accomplish.

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