On January 17th, someone was filling their cart with bulk goods. Another happy shopper was buying a smoothie, while yet another perused the fresh made bakery items. It seemed like just another day at the Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis. Yet, above these shoppers strange things were happening. People were gathering, some giddy, others chatty, some--like me--were curious.
About 40 folks had been invited to something called Wedgeshare. The group consisted of farmers, co-op employees, entrepeneurs and social workers. What connected them on this occasion, was not simply a love for food. These folks had been brought together to bear witness to a great event, one that I wish would have been announced with trumpets blaring and a ticker tape parade. Yet, we humbly sat together and listened as the winners of the Wedge's annual grants were made official. Wedgeshare is a charitable program started in 1997 that awards grant money to local orginizations. This year, $60,000 was divvied up to nine organizations that "work for the sustainable development of their communities."
I don't know about you, but I cannot think of a better way to kick off the "International year of cooperatives," than to hear great success stories such as these. It has me imagining what could happen in our cities, counties and nation if even a fourth of our businesses gave a chunk of their profits back to their communities. People would have more power. Communities would have more control. The little guys would have a voice. Things would get done. Sounds like the opposite of politics...
To make it more real, consider the organizations that received grants this year. The Youth Farm and Market project is one that can't get enough praise and support if you ask me. Their mission is "growing food to develop youth". More specifically, they are finding ways to connect urban youth and their families with the growing, cooking, eating and selling of healthy food. They acheive this through urban farms, education and farmers market sales, to name just a few. I greatly encourage you to follow the link above and check out their website.
Here are the other organizations and just a bit about them:
· The Emergency Foodshelf Network (www.emergencyfoodshelf.org) is a local non-profit organization that collects, warehouses and distributes high quality food, and provides essential support services to Minnesota hunger relief organizations.
· The Cornucopia Institute www.cornucopia.org is fighting for the integrity of organic farming and the authenticity of organic food by uniting family farmers with consumers and cooperatives.
· Open Arms of Minnesota (www.openarmsmn.org) is the only nonprofit organization in the state that prepares and delivers free meals specifically tailored to meet the nutritional needs of individuals living with chronic diseases, including HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, ALS and breast cancer.
· Farmers Legal Action Group (www.flaginc.org) helps immigrant farmers access land, contracts, leases, services and federal or state programs that could help stabilize their farm operations and incomes. They also work to ensure that immigrant farmers’ voices are included in the thriving new local foods movement.
· Water Legacy (www.WaterLegacy.org) was founded in response to the imminent threat of environmental degradation from the first copper-nickel sulfide mines ever proposed in Minnesota. A grassroots organization with more than 2,000 members, Water Legacy advocates to protect clean water, children’s health and healthy food.
· Minnesota Food Association’s (www.mnfoodassociation.org) Big River Farms provides skills, knowledge and experience through training and experiential learning to immigrant and limited resource farmers.
· Gardening Matters (www.gardeningmatters.org) supports and promotes community gardening in the Twin Cities metro area. Gardening Matters is a clearinghouse for community gardening, helping people join or start a community garden.
· Urban Baby (www.urbanbaby.org) is a start-up nonprofit in North Minneapolis empowering families to grow and cook fresh foods for babies, toddlers and young children so they are able to make healthy food choices and prevent nutrition-related diseases.
As the International year of cooperatives rolls along, I look forward to continuing a conversation that has been going on for quite a while, one that speaks up for why people should join a food co-op. My worry is that as co-ops become more refined and "fancy", we tend to forget why people joined a co-op in the first place. Back when co-ops were just starting, people gathered in small little hole-in-the-wall establishments and shared the responsibility of distributing good, cheap food. It was impossible to not be in a conversation about the importance of cooperation. Now, it is easy to just think of them as another grocery store, and easier yet to avoid getting into a dialogue about equality, social justice and feeding the people.
I plan to spend ample time this year contemplating cooperatives and have already attempted to dispel the myth that shopping at a co-op needs to be more expensive in my article, "Good food only for the elite?". Now, we learn that by spending your money at a cooperative, you may very well be giving back to the community. I think we are off to a good start; good food, affordable options, community and social action, not to mention the perks of receiving a dividend if you are a member. Let's continue the conversation here about how belonging to cooperatives might actually change you and change the world...for the better. Then, let's take the message and see how far we make it reach.
Thanks to Gunnar Liden, Executive Director of Youth Farm and Market Project for the photo, "cucumber hands".
Lawrence Black is a writer and editor at Simple, Good and Tasty. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He has lately been consuming large quantities of hot peppers, so it may be advisable to stay at least three feet away...unless you are cold.