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Cooperating Our Way to a Better Food System
“I’d be dead if it wasn’t for my neighbors,” was the way Genevieve Humenay acknowledged the most important tool in her rural survival toolbox. You can be smart, resourceful and even courageous, but when something goes really wrong and you live in sections of Cibola County, NM, where many services are 50 miles away, it could take a long time for the cavalry to ride to your rescue. Just ask the residents of Queens and Staten Island, New York standing neck-deep in Hurricane Sandy’s rising waters. Who were the first people to snatch them from the jaws of doom? Their neighbors.
Genevieve is one of 183 members of the El Morro Valley Cooperative fighting to restore some health and vigor to what can only be described as a rural food desert. There are vast tracks of the county where residents must drive 100 miles round-trip to get to a supermarket, which at the IRS-approved motor vehicle rate of 55 cents per mile, adds $55 to one’s weekly food purchases. Yes, there are supermarkets in Grants at Cibola’s northern border, but going south from there are only a few small stores scattered across a county nearly twice the size of the state of Delaware. And unfortunately, those stores are limited in selection and fresh produce, and high in price.
Heading down Highway 53 from Grants, I could see why this might not be prime supermarket territory. The scenery was spectacular, but there weren’t many people–six per square mile according to the US Census—and though there was no official count, the elk were so numerous they would certainly rule if only they could vote.
Given this limited marketplace, it’s no surprise that Albertsons and Whole Foods are not tripping over themselves to open stores in the El Morro Valley. It would take a crafty merchant to make a buck in a place where humans are few and far between, and where the customer base is surprisingly diverse. A Mormon community known for its frugality and the enviable practice of producing and storing their own food, three different Native American tribes—Acoma, Zuni, and the Ramah Navajo Band—and an assortment of back-to-the-landers, urban transplants and multi-generational ranchers presents a “market basket” that would challenge the merchandising skills of the most able grocer. For these reasons and more, the good food enthusiasts of the El Morro Valley realized early in their quest that the food cavalry was not likely to show up anytime soon.
“We feel like this is a community where we can work together,” was how Kate Brown, El Morro Valley Cooperative’s president, addressed the 25 people in attendance at a recent membership meeting. Glasses perched on the tip of her nose and a rich, brown braid draped over her right shoulder, by both demeanor and tone she reminded me of one of my favorite high school science teachers, an occupation she has indeed pursued. Kate’s pitch to her fellow cooperators was less about brick-and-mortar achievements—the co-op does not yet have a building of its own–and more about the ties that bind a people who are working toward a common purpose.
Yes, they have a farmers’ market in Ramah, and the co-op has organized a “buying alliance,” which pools household orders for a monthly pick-up in Albuquerque. But in the way that baseball players throw balls and swing bats before the game, these activities are merely warm-ups for the big contest of cooperation that lies ahead. As Kate made it clear, how well they cooperate as a community will ultimately determine how successful they are as a co-op business.
In spite of Margaret Mead’s much-quoted pep talk to “never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world,” the El Morro Co-op knew that commitment alone would not be enough. They knew they didn’t have all the skills, connections or capacity to organize a corporation, set-up bookkeeping systems or seek the loans and grants they would need to establish a good food store in the Valley. They realized early on that they needed a little help from their friends.
The good news for those who want to cooperate is that there’s no lack of those who will cooperate with you. El Morro reached out to the well-established La Montañita Co-op in Albuquerque as well as the Dixon Co-op, about 20 miles south of Taos, whose story of a struggling, up-by-the-bootstraps rural community food store matched their own. They tapped into the US Department of Agriculture and NM State University’s Arrowhead Center, which provides small business planning assistance. But it was probably their relationship with the Santa Fe-based nonprofit organization Farm to Table that yielded the most fruit.
What Farm to Table does is capacity building, a term that’s wormed its way into the lexicon of nonprofit and government agencies. It’s best understood by thinking how you might instruct someone in a skill they don’t yet command. You can extend the idea further to include the sharing of your list of resources and colleagues with someone so that they can also benefit. It’s this attitude of empowerment—me sharing my power with you—that best describes the relationship between Farm to Table and organizations like the El Morro Valley Co-op (see sidebars).
Farm to Table began working with the El Morro community in 2010 to enable them to formally establish a co-op corporation. In the process of doing this, they helped the new members sort out their dreams, which included a bakery, a livestock slaughtering and processing facility, a community farm and a hub for the gathering and distribution of locally produced food. The business options and models were nearly as numerous as the ideas for making their little corner of NM bloom. They could buy an existing store, build a new store from scratch, lease a building and convert it to a store, or work with the small stores now operating in Cibola County to expand and improve their limited selection.
You could say it was a rich moment of “stormin’ and normin’” that needed some structure and focus. Farm to Table was able to channel the members’ energy to evaluate the options and assess their relative strengths and weaknesses.
To help the Co-op make the best business decisions, Farm to Table connected El Morro to NMSU’s Arrowhead Center. The resulting business plan gave the co-op a roadmap for how to purchase the Lewis Trading Post in Ramah and operate it as their long-sought-after co-op store. Farm to Table also helped them prepare an application to USDA’s Rural Business Enterprise Grant, which was later approved. Equipped with a feasibility study, business plan and community survey, the co-op was now prepared to choose.
What did all of this preparation and analyses show? After reviewing the menu of choices it was clear that there were several ways to increase the availability of good food for the valley’s residents. The survey data found that the community was generally supportive of a number of these options and could be counted on as “a receptive market and customer base.” The so-called “Cadillac” option, buying the Lewis Trading Post and operating it as a co-op, was feasible but expensive.
While the members were warmed by the prospect of owning their own store, they nearly froze in their tracks when they heard the price tag — $750,000 — a number that one member characterized as “staggering.” To make that deal work, not only would co-op members have to come up with $200,000 of their own equity; they would have to operate the Trading Post at a higher sales volume and/or better margin than it was currently operating.
What emerged from all the culling and mulling was a hybrid solution that was not only innovative, but perhaps embodied the best ideals of the wider El Morro Valley. The co-op has dubbed the idea “Co-op Corners,” which, in its simplest form, utilizes the county’s six existing small stores as satellite mini-co-ops. These stores would receive weekly deliveries of natural food items, fresh produce and locally produced food from the El Morro Valley Co-op. The co-op, in turn, would pool the orders of these stores to achieve enough buying power to purchase and receive goods from the region’s larger suppliers. The start-up and operating costs are low, there’s no need for a fixed wholesale or retail site, and perhaps most important, Co-op Corners builds on what’s already there.
The elegance of the solution lies in the last point — it supports local businesses, which gives it the potential to reach a larger market share while building on the co-op’s biggest asset: community and cooperation. While Co-op Corners is not quite shovel-ready, it is the choice that garnered the most enthusiasm at the November member meeting.
“We want better quality food. That’s the big motivator for us,” was how Genevieve represented her community’s most fervent wish. In effect, the people of the El Morro Valley are expressing the same desires that have driven millions of American consumers away from the processed, one-size-fits-all industrial food system to one that offers food that is good tasting, has a known place of origin, and respects human and environmental health. And what’s more—and unlike most of us—the people of this valley are willing to struggle for what they want, take personal and financial risks, and blow the rallying bugle of “cooperation” to achieve what the retail food industry has failed to do across rural America.
Mark Winne, a Santa Fe resident, speaks, writes and trains nationally on community food system and food policy topics. He is the author of two books: Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cookin’ Mamasand Closing the Food Gap, both published by Beacon Press. For more information see www.markwinne.com.
La Semilla Food Center – Doña Ana County
There are some new kids on the block, and they go by the name of La Semilla Food Center. They’re young, brash and eager to change the world, but smart enough to know they should probably start with their home community. Though still wet behind the ears since their official start in 2010, this collaboratively led nonprofit organization has carved out a place for itself from El Paso to Las Cruces with community gardens, greenhouses, farm-to-school programs, food policy and advocacy. And it’s all informed by a healthy dose of youth development and leadership, because, as we know, youth are our future.
As good as they are—they’ve already secured a resolution from the City of Las Cruces to establish a local farm-to-school program, and they are on track to have the city ordain a food policy council this winter—they readily acknowledge, as Aaron Sharratt, one of La Semilla’s co-directors, bluntly put it, “Our existence is due to Farm to Table. They enabled us to secure our 501(c)(3) designation [the Holy Grail of certifications for nonprofit groups] from the IRS and got us thinking about public policy work as well. Without them, we would still be struggling, and we would certainly have never engaged the Las Cruces City Council.”
Most of La Semilla’s staff is in their 20s and 30s, which accounts for their energy and idealism, but it doesn’t explain their willingness to seek counsel from their so-called elders. That tendency suggests a higher wisdom that may be derived from their own collaborative leadership approach, one that doesn’t depend on the usual hierarchical management styles. “With Farm to Table,” Aaron suggests, “we could talk through the options and models—what’s worked and what hasn’t—and then they gave us the space to determine what’s best for us.”
Bold enough to push the envelope; wise enough to seek advice from others. That’s how La Semilla sows and nurtures its seeds of change.
The Volunteer Center of Grant County
Amid the open-pit mines of Grant County and the Douglas firs of the Gila Wilderness lies the gritty town of Silver City. A bit of the Wild West lingers here in the form of people who refuse to accept the status quo. One such person is Alicia Edwards, director of the Volunteer Center, who started her work in 2004 with the intention of “ending hunger and poverty in Grant County, not with Band-Aids, but systemically.” No small ambition, given the region’s precipitous economic ascents and descents that mirror the fortunes of the extraction industries.
The task Alicia outlined for herself was a big one, but she knew from the start that the process would have both short- and long-term elements—and she knew that “food was the common denominator that the community could work on together.” To that end the Volunteer Center has organized a Community Food Pantry Project that distributes food to needy people once a week, as well as community gardening and food education projects. But Alicia knew all along that these community-run initiatives weren’t enough, so when she hooked up with Farm to Table in 2010 she began to see what the long-term elements looked like.
“Grant County is far from the ideas and conversations that take place in Albuquerque and Santa Fe,” she said, “so the Farm to Table connection has been fantastic.” Grant assistance, networking and community facilitation provided by Farm to Table’s staff proved essential to the progress that Alicia wants to see in Grant County. Among other things, it helped them to enter the food policy arena by establishing a county food policy council and beginning work on a comprehensive food plan. But perhaps her biggest “Aha!” moment came when Farm to Table found some funds for Alicia to attend the BALLE conference in Washington State. It opened her eyes to how food could become an economic engine to revitalize a community. That is where the soon-to-be-opened Commons Center for Food Security and Sustainability comes in. The brand new facility at the corner of 13th and Corbin in Silver City will soon house many of the Volunteer Center’s programs, including a commercial kitchen and retail space. In her vision for the future, Alicia sees the Commons “as a physical manifestation of what we can do as a community, and maybe one day we’ll no longer need the food pantry because Grant County has become economically resilient.”
It takes one big-picture thinker like Alicia—and a whole lot of community partners—to one day end poverty and hunger.
Food Rebels, Guerilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cookin’ Mamas
Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture
by Mark Winne, Beacon Press, 2010
Despite the increased number of communities adopting programs to help support local agriculture and nutrition education, the majority of the food consumed in the US is still highly processed, poorly regulated, and manufactured through unsustainable methods.
In Food Rebels, Winne covers everything from urban farming in Cleveland and buffalo restoration on Native American reservations, to food-education classes in diabetes-prone neighborhoods. He shows how people are reclaiming their connection to their food and their health. “Food Rebels tells the stories of unsung heroes in the food movement—everyday people who realized that they had the power to change the way food and farming work in their communities and in the world, and did something about it,” says Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA. “With these stories, Mark Winne inspires us and challenges us to take a stand for good, clean, fair and affordable food for all.”
Winne challenges the reader become part of a larger movement to reclaim food sovereignty. Invoking the philosophies of great writers and thinkers, he writes about the importance of nourishing the body and the soul. The best way to do that, he says, is by becoming connected to your food source.
About the author
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