The Co-op: a Small but Mighty Part of the Food System

  | Board of Directors, Food For Thought

A few weeks ago I was faced with a tough decision while in the produce department. The conventional red bell peppers looked “perfect”: they were big, symmetrical and a deep, bright red. On that day, the organic peppers that I normally buy were a funny shape and dark red and green. I happily snapped up some conventional reds and headed home. To my dismay, when I got my peppers home and cut them up, I found my “perfect” peppers to be watery and lacking in flavor compared to the organic peppers I am used to.

This got me thinking about food systems—everything involved in the process of getting food from farm to fork and even as far as what happens after the fork.

Board members have a duty to “ensure continuous improvement through regular training.” Since joining the board in November, I have participated in trainings on a number of topics, from Improving Diversity and Inclusion to Interpreting Financial Statements. Over the past few months, I’ve also had the pleasure of attending a few conferences and presentations that discussed problems we face with our modern food systems.

In the cooperative world we think about each step of our food systems, namely, the inputs and outputs from production and growing, harvesting and processing, packaging and marketing, transportation and distribution, merchandising and retailing, preparation and consumption, even including post-consumption resource recovery. At the Co-op we are constantly looking to improve each step of our food system: We source locally. We research impacts of packaging. We make sure our food scraps end up back at farms in the form of compost or feed. And we will be partnering with biodiesel companies to make sure our waste oil is getting upcycled.

Another trademark of the cooperative is partnering with others who are looking to improve the food system. In March, representatives from Equal Exchange (a worker-owned co-operative) came to the Co-op and gave a presentation about building a better food system. In this presentation, which was open to the public, we discussed the realities of the major changes in the natural and organic industries over the past decade.

During the presentation we were reminded of how the food system is influenced by large corporations at all levels. One chart showed 800 boxes representing grocery market share by store. While a few major chains dominated the chart, only two boxes represented co-ops, next to the single box that represented farmers’ markets (as opposed to 200 for Walmart/Sam’s Club). As co-ops we may represent a small percentage of the retail sales, but it’s evident that we have the ability to influence even our largest competitors – megaretailers moving toward natural and organic is evidence of this.

You are likely aware that the natural foods sector isn’t the mom-and-pop operation it used to be, with some of the original bastions of organic and healthy foods being snapped up by major food conglomerates. Many of the “homegrown” companies are now owned by multi-billion-dollar companies like ConAgra, Kraft, and General Mills. This doesn’t inherently mean anything bad, but it is cause for concern. This year the Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act of 2018 will be reintroduced. This bill aims to prevent major food companies from purchasing smaller companies for 18 months. During this time, a commission will review the consequences that these types of transactions have on our food systems and recommend changes to the laws that govern them.

It can be difficult to take all of this information into consideration when making choices, and even more difficult to do this in the midst of your weekly shop. Like the rest of life, it’s important to learn from our past choices and strive for continuous improvement. I do my best to balance economy, personal values, and quality when shopping. Striking this balance takes effort, but over time it comes more easily, and our individual choices and voices are going to be what improve the food system.

Megaretailers see how we are voting with our dollars and are taking note of what co-ops are doing and, in a limited way, are trying to follow suit. Some legislators are listening to the people and trying to establish laws that will work to repair and improve our food system. The small decisions we make in our lives add up, as do the decisions we make in the aisles. It’s important to take the time to reassess the quality of our decisions and the impacts they have, and to do our best to continuously improve our choices. I encourage everyone to allow food systems to play a larger role in their decisions at the store and at the ballot box.

It’s easy to see a pepper and fail to see the food system it belongs to. Now when I buy red peppers, I buy the organic- even if they small, oddly shaped and colored, I know they will be delicious and support a food system I believe in.

To read the text of, check the status of, or contact your congressional representatives in regard to the bill mentioned above, please visit: .

By Jim Barker