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Deconstructing Dinner: Reconstructing Our Food System
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September 30, 2008

 

Deconstructing Dinner

 

COOPERATING FOR FOOD IN TOUGH ECONOMIC TIMES

How one Illinois community rallied together to take greater control over their food supply.

 

Jon Steinman

 

The co-operative model has a long and celebrated history in Canada. Co-ops are often formed in tough times as a response to unchecked corporate control or simply as a way to build a stronger community.

Instead of being owned by investors or shareholders located anywhere in the world, co-ops are owned and democratically controlled by members within the community they operate. In the case of food, co-operatives can represent a refreshing alternative to the many concerns facing our food supply today.

The urban area of Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, has a population of around 200,000 people, but for the community of Urbana, they have never, until recently, had easy access to a natural food store.

 

For over 30 years, a co-operative food store operated quietly in the basement of a church, but only served members and not the public.

 

In late August of this year, the Common Ground Food Co-op surfaced and moved into a brand new building. Their doors are also now open to the public. 

 

So why pay attention to a small co-operative food store all the way over in Illinois? Most importantly, it's sending a strong message throughout North America of how a community can come together to take greater control over their food supply.

 

Of particular interest is how this co-op financed the expansion of their store.

 

As we sit in the midst of one of the most serious economic crises in memorable history, perhaps this is a critical time to ask if the model of economics that has governed how we conduct our lives is failing. At the very least, the crisis may signal that our systems of financial lending do not adequately respect the needs of people or the common good.

 

Enter the co-operative model, one that can look to the local community and its members for financing. It's not uncommon for co-operatives to look to their members for such support instead of some distant banking institution without a face. However, the Common Ground Co-op did something rather uncommon. "Usually, for any expansion of a co-op, about a third of the financing comes from the membership or from the store itself," says Jacqueline Hannah, the General Manager of the Co-op.

 

In January, Hannah helped launch a member loan drive. "Our goal was to bring in $250,000 in member loans," says Hannah, "which is unheard of in the industry for a co-op as small as we were." What followed caught her by surprise. "People came forward with blinding enthusiasm and within 10 weeks we had pledges for $250,000 in loans."

 

Ultimately, the Co-op raised $270,000 in member loans to be repaid in terms of 5-10 years. The talk of expansion also encouraged an increase in memberships alongside already-existing members purchasing an extra $25,000 worth of additional non-voting shares. In the end, the Co-op raised 47% of their expansion needs!

 

This rallying of support sends a strong message to other communities wishing to take greater control over their food supply; if you want it, build it!

 

There is a growing interest to support more naturally and locally produced foods and this new attention is presenting some important opportunities. While an overwhelming number of people are indeed seeking out such foods, the global and market-driven model of food that most of us are dependent upon is unable to respond to such demand. Common Ground proves that communities themselves can instead take on this role and responsibility.

 

A co-operative food store can have significant impacts on local producers, and for Common Ground, their expansion has already proven to be doing just that. "Growth for us has allowed us to better meet our mission," says Hannah. The mission of the Common Ground Food Co-op is to "promote local and organic production, foster conscious consumerism, and build community".

 

"Already in the week that we've been open, we're now working with an additional six farmers," says Hannah. The Co-op has also begun speaking with farmers about growing crops for next year to better respond to their increasing demands.

 

Another benefit to the store's expansion has been the ability to assist new members who lack experience working with unprocessed foods. "I'm now able to have a member of my staff who devotes at least 50% of her time to develop education for our members, says Hannah with excitement. "We're now going to be able to offer classes on how to use and cook with this local produce." She adds that canning workshops are also in the works.

 

Does this sound like something you'd like to see in your community? If so, then it's up to you and those around you to make it happen. It's quite clear that the most recognizable brands of food will not be launching a line of "local" any time soon.

 

Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations across Canada and is available as a Podcast. More information on today's topic can be found at (www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner/092508.htm).

 

 

 

 

 

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