Redefining Prosperity, Building Resilience

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As shown again in this issue, food co-ops operate in the crosscurrents of dynamic local revival and deep national problems: Slow Food and junk food. Slow Money and accelerating debt. Community building and civic decline.

Food embodies obvious needs, enabling co-ops to manifest their values and mission. Along with fulfilling our “minute particulars” in growing democratic food economies, this is a time to look at the big picture.

Most businesses and communities are experiencing worsening employment, reduced revenue, cutbacks in public services, and more. Our national government seems captive, unable to break out of a downward spiral of more debt, mostly to rescue banks, and more military spending, still exempt from reductions. Even with better-targeted spending, a monetary breaking point will arrive if only because unlimited growth, which the interest and debt payments require, is impossible in a world of finite resources. (See Richard Heinberg’s clear summary: http://www.energybulletin.net/node/49798.)

A necessary new paradigm based on curtailment and conservation—at best, prosperity without growth—is slowly emerging. Although encouraging such a change and recognizing limits undermines the short-term interests of many, ultimately we cannot effectively address the combined economic and climate crises without slowing the consumption of resources. In any case, for growing numbers, the curtailment of consumption is unavoidable.

We are in exciting times, with many opportunities to build stronger cooperative communities. More cities and citizens are looking ahead and are strengthening resilience, seeking the means and measures of a more self-reliant future.

Local food systems are being revived, with small but growing public policy support. Here and there, planning for a future featuring less cheap energy and more collaboration is a community-wide effort, such as in Transition Towns (http://www.transitionus.org). Another recent example is from the city of Bloomington, Indiana—host site of the June 2010 Consumer Cooperative Management Association conference—where the city council commissioned and then approved a report titled, “Redefining Prosperity: Energy Descent and Community Resilience” (available at http://bloomington.in.gov/peakoil ).

Current public programs supporting organics that can be utilized by co-op suppliers and farmers are noted in Cissy Bowman’s report. For context, however, note that the federal administration is maintaining the billions of dollars in commodity payments that dominate the agriculture budget and degrade the conventional food system. This perpetuates the loss of small farms through corporate ownership and concentrated livestock operations; degradation of soil, water, and public health; and undermining of domestic and foreign economies through export-driven policies and ethanol production. As summarized by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, this position “betrays President Obama’s number-one agriculture campaign pledge and keeps intact the farm subsidy loopholes that allow mega farms to get around the limits established by the 2008 Farm Bill by subdividing their operations into multiple paper corporations.”

Yet conversion to organic and sustainable agriculture is urgent, both to reduce emissions and prepare for an upcoming decline in the availability of cheap fossil fuels. Greatly reducing U.S. petroleum/natural gas dependence will require millions of new growers—added to today’s 2 million farmers, whose average age is nearly 60.

Alternatives are at hand, and food co-ops are well positioned to help build a more promising economy based on healthy food from healthy farms. As Robin Seydel of La Montanita Co-op says in her report on Slow Money, food co-ops are going beyond procuring and promoting local foods. They are “investing in farmland, forming or collaborating with agricultural land trusts, creating farm loan funds, doing microcredit loans and grants to small food enterprises, managing farms and supporting community gardens, providing venues for farmers markets and creating regional distribution networks.”

More of such efforts are highlighted here. A model of collaborating to build the market for local farmers is detailed by Jean Rogers of the Bellingham (Wash.) Community Food Cooperative, which helped to launch a Farm Fund. From Minnesota, Allison Meyer reviews the Seward Co-op “Scorecard,” a comprehensive social audit developed by staff to define and evaluate the co-op’s business practices.

Carol Spurling from Moscow (Idaho) Food Co-op highlights lively outreach through events that convey values and services. And in an impressive example of co-ops helping co-ops, Weaver Street Market has sustained its vitality through a period of market disruption and management challenges.

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See other articles from this issue: #147 March - April - 2010