A Fire in Our Bellies: Food Justice & Cooperatives
Over 400 participants will converge in Ann Arbor, Michigan from November 1st - 3rd to share ideas, learn new skills, and look at issues affecting the cooperative movement worldwide. Since 1977, NASCO's Cooperative Education & Training Institute has been widely recognized as one of the most important training and networking opportunities available to members, directors, staff and managers of housing cooperatives. The annual NASCO Institute is always a one-of-a-kind opportunity to network with hundreds of cooperative leaders and employers, to caucus about pressing issues, and to work on building an inclusive and accessible cooperative movement.
This year’s Cooperative Education and Training Institute will provide a space for cooperative members from all over Canada and the United States to explore the intersections of food justice work and the cooperative movement. Food brings us together around the co-op table, and because we all need to eat, food ties us together with every living being on earth. It is laden with cultural significance and surrounded by ritual. As aware consumers trying to build cooperative economies, our food choices require us to (re)consider labor, trade, and environmental concerns. How our food is produced and transported affects the air, water, soil, animals, climate, and our bodies. It affects the bodies of the people who labor to grow it. It affects our communities, our relationships with one another, and puts us into relationship with people across the world.
The injustice in food production, distribution, and access has galvanized people to act and to organize. As the realities of industrial agriculture and factory farming have become more broadly understood, ethical questions about food purchasing are increasingly a subject of debate. Which people have access to food (and to food of what kind) has been a major issue in public discourse from food deserts to the so called "obesity epidemic." It is clear that while individual choices matter, transforming food systems requires collective action. Together, we can better unravel the disparities and luxuries that emerge from everyday food choices. Creating a sustainable food system will transform the lives of many and bring us all closer to a livable and cooperative future.
So how do co-ops fit in? How can co-ops work with local communities towards food justice? How do co-ops source their food if/when they buy in bulk? Some co-ops have been created specifically to meet needs around food access that profit-based institutions would not meet. How well are they doing? Cooperative institutions, whether housing or food co-ops, have power. The decisions they make have both symbolic weight and economic impact. And if we include agricultural co-ops, we see that co-ops have enormous economic and political power. How do we leverage this power to help create a more just and equitable food system? How can we orient our houses and our movement around a food justice agenda that is actionable and in solidarity with producers, transporters, and retail food workers? Cooperatives can (and often do!) serve as transformative spaces for encountering communal meals, locally-sourced ingredients, and organic/vegetarian/vegan options. Many co-ops organize their expected labor contribution around cooking for the community. How can we take some of these models and take them further? Where can we dig deeper in terms of food justice and go beyond labels like 'organic' and 'food desert?' There is more to be discovered here, and more work that co-ops can do to actualize the vision of a truly just food system.