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5 ways the Co-op can help regional food security (and vice versa)

Though it applies to everything contributors to this blog write, it should be expressly stated that any opinions below are solely those of the author and DO NOT reflect any policies, rules, or decisions made the South Philly Food Co-op's steering, legal/finance, or outreach committees. Earlier this month the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) released "Eating Here: Greater Philadelphia’s Food System Plan" (abstract .pdf here). The report is the latest step in a process that began a couple years back with the convening of the Greater Philadelphia Food System Stakeholder Committee and the publication of The Greater Philadelphia Food System Study, "a large surveying effort and analysis that identified prominent stakeholders, successful programs, regional competitive advantages, recommendations for improvement, and differing interests." I spent the better part of the weekend reading through the full report specifically looking for ways that the report's message about food system security and its recommended actions could relate to the food co-op model and what we're trying to accomplish here in South Philadelphia. The report is full of recommendations that a co-op with the mission of the South Philly Food Co-op could help to make a reality. There are also a number of recommendations that if implemented could, in turn, make the co-op more viable and more competitive with corporate food retailers whose profit motive takes precedence - as it naturally should - often contributing to many of the poor dietary and environmental indicators cited in the report. (Keep reading below for some items I've pulled from the report. A warning, though, I tend to get a little wordy.) For example, on page 51 the report references the difficulties faced by farming and food businesses as they seek access to capital for start-up and expansion (a difficulty which this Co-op is seeking answers to right now). The report offers hope:
...many financial institutions have a growing interest in supporting sustainable businesses that have a triple-bottom line—people, profit and planet. Greater Philadelphia has a number of financial organizations interested in supporting the growing local food and healthy food movements, in addition to the emerging social enterprise movement.
It goes on to list a few of those institutions as examples. Obviously such institutions aren't going to throw money out there at every start-up food concern that comes along, but an organization with a large and growing number of dedicated individuals, who can prove that there is a market for the kind of mission-based business represented by this co-op can have hope of securing the support it needs. And while getting that critical mass of people is clearly the most difficult part of this process, being able to give them a reason to believe that their time, effort and money has a reasonably good chance of being leveraged into institutional financial support makes it just a little easier. The report also recommends making improvements to the supply chain so that the "efficiencies of the global food system" (think supermarket chains and big box retailers who also sell food) can be applied to the regional food system. The "direct market chain" - one system that a food co-op would support - in which producers are put directly in contact with consumers has the benefit "of providing consumers with detailed information about where and by whom the products are produced." (Actually, as a "middle man" of sorts, the co-op model may technically be an example of the hybrid or intermediated chain but connecting producer and consumer more directly can be among its goals.) In order to help, say, a small local co-op compete with the big players the report says:
Applying technological innovations already employed by the global food system to intermediated and direct market supply chains can increase transportation efficiencies, which in turn can lead to more affordable local products and more accurate information on product origins for the consumer.
The sooner the better! There are a number of ways the co-op (and existing co-ops in the region) could help the recommendations in the report become reality. In fact, a strong system of food co-ops (as mission-based, rather than purely profit-based businesses) could help implementation of all the recommendations in the report. But the following especially stood out: Promote the use of new technology and community-based communication outlets by all partners—government, private sector, and nonprofits—to educate people about healthy food. (p 59) Approaches to reduce hunger should emphasize creating jobs with livable wages and empowering those personally affected. (p 76) Though there's some argument about his motivations, Henry Ford's idea of paying his workers a high wage they could afford the cars he was selling is an example of how a co-op with a goal of paying its workers a living wage could help create a number of well-paying semi-skilled-labor jobs that in turn reduce poverty and hunger. Advocate for food labels that allow consumers to make more informed decisions and enable food producers to be more fully compensated. (p 77) I've written about fact-o-vore based eating before so it's no surprise that this is one of my primary motivations for wanting a co-op. Overall, the takeaway for any of us involved in starting a food co-op is that we're not doing this in a vacuum. As the report makes clear (just with its list of "stakeholders") these issues are being considered at some of the highest levels of regional government and by hundreds of different organizations. Food security, like energy security, will be one of the foremost issues of the 21st century. It's clear that the system that has been in place for the past 50 years or so needs to be fixed, if not totally overhauled. While we continue working on our community's part of this fix, the report ends with some recommendations for individuals:
Individuals can support the region’s economy and heritage by purchasing fresh, locally grown foods from a nearby farmers’ market or by joining a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm. If one has the space, growing a garden will improve a household’s food security. Many municipalities and some neighborhoods have composting programs. Private companies have started to meet the need to compost household food waste. The region has an extensive park and trail network, encouraging people to get outside, enjoy the outdoors, and exercise or commute to work. Lastly, individuals can protect open space and farmland by voting for municipal, county, and state funding referendums or becoming a member of a land trust.