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Dichotomies of the Food System

I have long been fascinated in the dichotomies that exist in the sustainable food movement, and how in fact, though we don’t always realize it, it is the push and pull of seemingly opposed factions that allows for real forward momentum.

Let me explain. Years ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Eco Farm Conference, a large organic produce industry gathering held annually in Pacific Grove, California—in the heart of the industrial agricultural land that produces a huge percentage of the vegetables our nation eats. The conference is attended by people from all over the organic food industry: established and aspiring farmers, distributors, brokers, retailers, activists, students, and large corporate packers such as Driscoll’s, CalOrganic and others.

passionate opposition
At that conference, the passionate opposition of the two sides of the organic movement struck me. On one side there were the purists—those who felt like the organic standards instituted by the USDA were not strict enough, that organic needed to be more sustainable, more focused on small farms, and more true to the roots of what (in their eyes) “organic” is supposed to mean. On the other side were the folks pushing for more corporate involvement in organics and bigger distribution chains. Their argument was that with so many people to feed, organic food would have to scale up and find more ways to get to consumers everywhere. To these folks, organic food in huge big box chain stores was not a bad thing, butsomething to be welcomed since it meant more people could access organic food and more acreage would ultimately be converted to organic agriculture (even if that agriculture was not quite as pure as what the purists wanted).

Both of these arguments made perfect sense to me, and I had a really hard time deciding where I stood in all of it. This led to an “a-ha moment” that has shaped the way I look at our food system ever since: both sides are right. In fact, both sides of this argument are necessary if we are going to ever get to a point where organic and sustainable is the most common way we grow food. We need people figuring out large distribution chains and how to scale organic food up to feed the entire population; but just as much, we need the purists to continue to tirelessly push the point that it needs to be done in a way that is truly sustainable. These are two sides of the same coin, and one without the other would lead to either a system where organic food is only available to the elite few, or the organic standards get so watered down that they mean nothing.

Fast forward 10 years. As we near the opening of Willy North, I am again struck by a similar dichotomy that is emerging out of what I hear from Co-op Owners.

Pricing and sourcing
On one hand, I am hearing a lot of Owners who have deep concerns about the prices we will charge at Willy North, and our ability to be accessible to the lower income neighborhood that we’re moving into. They tell us that we’ll need to drastically change our product mix to carry more affordable “conventional” foods in order to support the northside customers who need more pricing options than our current stores afford. I couldn’t agree more, and this is a huge part of our plan.

On the other side, I am increasingly hearing from Owners who are concerned about where their food comes from. Not necessarily the organic integrity or healthfulness of the food itself (although I know they’re concerned about that too), but the welfare of the people who grow that food. There is an increasing awareness that the vast majority of the people who grow, pick, and pack our food are getting a very raw deal, and an increasing insistence that we, as the Co-op, do all that we can to ensure we are buying food that comes from distribution chains that value all of the workers involved. This is something that’s been on my mind for a long time and I’m so glad that there is a growing awareness of the fact that sustainability is more than ecological—it extends to the entire food system, including the people who work in it.

Then, there’s thehard fact that the two paragraphs I just wrote are seemingly incompatible. One of the biggest reasons that food can be cheap enough to be affordable to those of lesser means is precisely because someone on the other end of that food was not treated fairly. With the current food system the way it is, it’s almost impossible to offer super-cheap food that is also truly equitably or sustainably produced, and in order to really fix the problem you ultimately have to address both sides of the equation: Seek out food that is grown by people who are paid a fair wage and treated with dignity; and at the same time address the reasons why there are people in this world who can’t afford that food. Again, two sides of the same coin.

Where does that leave us as we ponder the pricing and product mix of Willy North?
The only way I see is to use the tension of those two viewpoints to drive us forward. We need to make sure that we are providing affordable food to anyone and everyone who shops at our store, even when that means compromising on the “purist” organic and sustainable ideals that have driven the product mix of our other stores. It also means that we have to get creative and find ways to make the organic and sustainable foods we carry as affordable as possible by buying product in larger quantities to get pricing down; seeking out foods that are sustainably grown or raised but have lower price points, and supporting our local suppliers to help them scale up and bring prices down.

We need to continue to listen to those Owners who are concerned about where their food comes from. We need them to push us to remain true to the product philosophy that has guided us to this day—to seek out food that is sustainably grown, both in terms of the ecological world, and also the human beings who touched our food along the way.

We also need to do everything we can to help everyone in our community purchase healthy food, and not give into the fallacy that just because you have lesser means, you deserve lesser quality food. This is why we have our 10% Access Discount for people with lower incomes; we accept Food Share; and for Willy North we are pursuing WIC certification. We are also very excited about the Double Dollars program, a federal grant which will double the amount that Food Share recipients can spend on fresh fruits and vegetables at our stores beginning in October. Lastly, we try to set an example for businesses everywhere by offering a wage to Co-op employees that is above what most grocery stores offer their entry-level staff, and we strive to employ as many people as we can who live in the neighborhoods of our stores.

Ultimately, we need to acknowledge that we are on a path, and we have not arrived. Changing our entire food system to one that is truly fair for all workers and all eaters is necessary work, but it is not easy, and it will take years if not generations to accomplish. In the meantime, we will have to be content with imperfection and compromise. Though Willy North is just a tiny speck in the global food system, my hope is that we can provide a new model for what a grocery store can be, and continue to drive the forward momentum and change that is so desperately needed.

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