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Cooperative Food Justice

The very first cooperative principle states, “cooperatives are voluntary organizations, open to all people able to use its services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.” As a food justice advocate and Board member, I frequently think critically about this principle. How do we, as cooperative Owners, engage with issues of food inaccessibility in our communities?

This past month, I had the opportunity to attend and present at two midwest cooperative conferences: the (very first!) Riverwest Co-op Fest in Milwaukee, WI, and the annual NASCO (North American Students of Cooperation) Institute in Ann Arbor, MI. Both inspired and reinvigorated my commitment to incorporate further anti-oppression analysis into my life and (hopefully) the cooperative movement as a whole.

In Riverwest, Cami Thomas and I co-facilitated a workshop called “How Cooperatives Revolutionize the Movement.” We spoke about the alignment of social justice values and cooperative ownership, with a focus on oppression, privilege, and various ways in which cooperatives can give agency and autonomy to oppressed groups. Cami also drew parallels between cooperative and Kwanzaa principles, specifically highlighting Ujamaa (cooperative economics) and Ujima (collective work and responsibility). We discussed the ways cooperatives change our relationships to and with power by sharing and redistributing it throughout their structures.

In Ann Arbor, I was thrilled to open my NASCO Institute program to six pages of resources, including “guidelines for being strong white allies” to “action steps for being a trans ally” and “10 things men can do to prevent gender violence.” One of the workshop tracks was titled “Applied Anti-Oppression: Food Justice, Food Security, & Food Sovereignty,” and it included practical, strategic workshops (“Deep Roots Food Justice Intensive”) alongside thoughtful, critical ones (“Demystifying and Decolonizing ‘Ethnic’ Food”). I was especially excited to hear Kwamena Mensah of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network present. He gave an overview of the current economic conditions in Detroit, and spoke about the successes of DBCFSN’s urban farm, as well as their plans to open a retail food co-op in the near future. The vision for this emerging co-op emphasizes access to high-quality food for Detroit’s African-American community alongside broader strategies of food justice and food sovereignty.
At NASCO, I presented a workshop called “Foodie Privileges: The Everyday Economics of Accessible Food Co-ops.” Participants from throughout the U.S. wrote down some of their questions about this topic. Here are a few of the things they were asking:

  • How can food co-opsbe more socially and culturally accessible to everyone?

  • How can we pool our resources to tackle the problem of food access?

  • What can I do to help dismantle oppression and Monsanto simultaneously?

  • Is it possible to have political discussions in food co-ops that go beyond individual choice issues (i.e. GMO food labeling, organics, etc)?

  • How can I use my privilege to change the system to benefit those who are the most oppressed?

  • Where is the balance between food accessibility and “traditional” health food ideals?

  • Who isn’t at the table in our food communities/systems when we talk and plan?

Recently, I have been reading work by critical theorist Sara Ahmed which re-frames accessibility and privilege, particularly in terms of gender, sexuality, and race. This particular quote resonated with the questions I frequently return to: “Whiteness is an orientation that puts certain things within reach. By objects, we would include not just physical objects, but also styles, capacities, aspirations, techniques, even worlds. In putting certain things in reach, a world acquires its shape; the white world is a world orientated ‘around’ whiteness. This world, too, is ‘inherited’ as a dwelling: it is a world shaped by colonial histories, which affect not simply how maps are drawn, but the kinds of orientations we have towards objects and others. Race becomes, in this model, a question of what is within reach, what is available to perceive.” I think about the many ways that access to food and to cooperatives has to be understood in socially complex terms if we want to change the systems that overtly or covertly perpetuate discrimination. Luckily, there are a growing number of cooperators who are committed to doing this work!

In 2012, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy published draft principles of food justice (here: Among them was this gem: “We cannot deliver food justice without addressing historical trauma and the way it requires an intersectional analysis of our relationship with the land, with each other, with the economy, across cultures, and with our food and other consumption choices.” I am seeking that analysis and imagine that others might be as well.
What questions, suggestions, concerns, ideas and resources around food justice do you have? Send them my way! (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) I look forward to asking tough questions, looking for strategic solutions, and advancing these ideals at Willy Street Co-op.
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