Thursday, February 09, 2012

Local Food and Co-operatives

I wrote the following article for the monthly newsletter of a Sudbury organization called reThink Green. I did this as part of my placement at another local organization called Eat Local Sudbury, which is an element of my current detour through graduate school.

Local Food and Co-operatives
By Scott Neigh

It manages to be both obvious and difficult to wrap our minds around: In order to have a greener impact on the planet, we have to think about doing things differently far beyond the kinds of individual choices that are more green or less green but that leave the shape of our lives and communities otherwise unchanged. For instance, choosing to take public transit rather than drive on an individual occasion is certainly a positive thing, but a shift towards sustainable transportation that is sufficient in its reach and equitable in its consequences means going beyond encouraging more people to make that choice under current conditions. It also means thinking about what we need to do socially to make it more possible and more reasonable for more people to choose to take transit more of the time, probably in ways that will end up making our lives and our communities work differently than they do now.

I want to make the case that one kind of difference that can foster greener outcomes is supporting local co-operatives, which means embracing a different kind of relationship to the organizations in our community than those demanded by regular businesses. At the moment, I’m working with an organization called Eat Local Sudbury (ELS), which is organized as a co-op and is currently figuring out how to bring its ways of doing things more in line with the strengths of that particular organizational form. This means that what I have to say is largely focused on talking about the work that ELS does. However, 2012 is also the International Year of the Co-operative (see, so it also seems like a good opportunity for people concerned with the environment to think a little more broadly about how co-ops can be part of building communities that are sustainable.

ELS has a storefront at 176 Larch Street where you can buy food that has been produced locally, in many cases using green methods. Many people who are concerned with their impacts on the earth are already aware of the benefits of eating locally. The closer food is produced to where it gets eaten, the less fossil fuel it requires to get it from farm to table, which is good for the environment. The money paid for local food is more likely to go to support producers who have smaller operations and who are part of our communities, rather than huge businesses. When food is local, it is often possible to have a much better idea of how it was produced in terms of processes, environmental impacts, and the wellbeing of the animals and people involved. More of the money spent on local food stays in the community, as the producers in turn pay workers and buy supplies closer to home.

The benefits of buying local food are many, but those of you who shop at ELS already know that a commitment to eating locally means making some changes in how we relate to buying food. Given how busy our lives are and the ever-increasing pressures to work more and more to make ends meet, it is no wonder that the pull of supermarket buying is so strong – one-stop shopping to get whatever we need, and if the food we buy comes from 3000 km away and we don’t really know what happened to it before it got to us, well, we’re too busy to do too much about it.

An outlet that focuses on local food, in contrast, cannot have everything and cannot be a one-stop solution. ELS is working all the time to expand the range of products that it offers, but there are lots of foods that are simply not produced near Sudbury or even in Ontario, or that are available only at certain times of year. Moreover, dealing with small, local producers rather than massive, transcontinental supply chains means that not everything will be available all of the time. Our local environment has rhythms, people’s work has rhythms, and to buy locally we need to recognize that our buying and eating need to have some rhythms too. Eating local means making changes in our lives beyond picking X over Y.

There are other aspects of ensuring there is local food on your table that are less visible. Any food that you buy not only has to be produced by someone and sold by someone, but it also has to get between the producer and the seller. Industrial agriculture has large-scale distribution systems that span continents already in place. Yet the infrastructure to get food from the farmer down the road to your table is still developing. In fact, it is one of the priorities of a newly-formed provincial network of local food co-ops to figure out how best to support the growth of robust local food distribution systems – how to fill in the “missing middle,” to use one of the buzzwords. Though it is not usually visible to people who want local produce, local meats, or local processed food, doing this means making new connections, building new relationships, and figuring out new ways of doing things. That is, it is another way that having greener impacts requires making changes and doing work that is social.

Eat Local Sudbury

My role at ELS is to contribute to a process of organizational development which, in part, involves shifting how we do things to be more in line with the fact that we are a co-operative. As the work has unfolded, it has become clearer and clearer that the way we need to think about it is “different food in different ways” or even “better food in better ways.” The co-operative form offers advantages that will allow the local food system in Sudbury to grow and thrive in the years to come.

Despite the fact that many Canadians are members of co-operatives, whether it is their community credit union or a retail giant like Mountain Equipment Co-op – as well as, of course, ELS – many of us do not really know what they are or how they work. While different co-ops can look and operate very differently, all are enterprises that are owned and democratically controlled by the people whose participation as consumers, producers, or workers, or some combination, make the organization a reality. There are co-ops that engage in almost every kind of activity, not just retail and financial services but also childcare, agriculture, manufacturing, and much more.

Rather than being legally obligated to focus entirely on maximizing profit for shareholders, co-ops are organized around meeting the shared needs of members. Rather than being controlled by whoever has dollars to sink into an organization, co-ops are governed on a one member/one vote basis. The guiding principles of co-operatives mandate attention to social and community needs. Their democratic, member-controlled structure allows for a kind of responsiveness to the needs of the ordinary people who constitute them and the communities that nurture them that massive businesses simply cannot match.

The key to a vibrant co-operative, particularly a smaller one, is a mobilized and engaged membership. Though co-ops have to navigate many of the same pressures as for-profit businesses, their commitments to organizational democracy, to the wellbeing of members, and to strengthening community mean that active participation by members – or member-owners, as they are sometimes called – plays a much more significant role in shaping co-ops and driving them forward than the relationship between a consumer and a business.

Within those broad parameters, different co-operatives can do their work in many different ways. Currently, ELS is organized as a hybrid of a producer co-op and a consumer co-op – a joint, co-operative venture between those who produce food locally and those who wish to buy local food. In the coming months, we want to get people talking about what it might look like to get member-owners more actively involved in making decisions, promoting local food, engaging the broader community, and bringing ELS to life, in a way that fulfills the co-operative goals of democracy, support of members, and strengthening community. We envision an organization that is community controlled, community supported, and not dependent on grant funding for survival. We imagine building a dynamic, responsive local food distribution system that is networked with such systems elsewhere in Ontario, and we imagine turning more and more people on to the advantages – personal, environmental, community – of eating local food.

If you aren’t an ELS member, I encourage you to become one. If you haven’t bought food at our store, or you haven’t done so recently, I encourage you to come in and take a look. And if you are a member, I encourage you to become part of the conversations that will shape ELS’ co-operative future. ELS members are invited to come to the Environmental Resource Centre (176 Larch Street, back entrance) from 1-3pm on Saturday, March 3 or 7-9pm on Thursday, March 8 to learn about co-ops, to offer your input as ELS changes, and to start thinking about how you can be a part of those changes.

Scott is a Sudbury-based writer, a parent, and an activist, who is currently working at ELS as a placement student from Laurentian University. If you have questions or suggestions, you can reach him at

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