Food Co-ops and Resilient Communities

By Matt Cropp

In recent weeks, the game of political chicken that the Republicans and Democrats have been playing over the national debt limit has, for many people, raised the question of what would happen if the Federal Government does, in fact, default on its obligations. With tens of millions of elderly and disabled Americans directly dependent upon the Feds for their subsistence, and millions more of their fellow citizens employed by taxpayer-funded institutions, it is clear that even the partial bankruptcy of the US Government could have potentially disastrous consequences. Between throwing the most vulnerable Americans into abject poverty and eliminating the jobs of millions of their fellow able-bodied citizens at a stroke, such a scenario would seem, to many, like a whole-sale collapse of the American way of life on a scale not seen since the Great Depression.

In many American communities, the impact of such an event would be devastating. As recipients of government aid (including everything from food stamps to social security to welfare) and those employed by the government find their incomes suddenly eliminated, unemployment would explode. When all of that money ceases to circulate through the local economy, many key businesses (such as grocery stores) would cease to be profitable and, as they are usually owned by shareholders with no connection to the community in which they do business, many would close their doors and liquidate in order to pay off their creditors and owners. As a result, unemployment would rise further and many communities would soon find themselves lacking the vital services that are essential to their very survival. Thus, it is not unimaginable to envision a mass migration by able-bodied persons in desperate search of work along the lines of the Okies who migrated out of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. For those who are too old or disabled to move to greener pastures, however, such an outcome would be utterly devastating, as they might often find themselves abandoned in communities with almost no ability to care for them.

While the above is a bleak picture, I believe that there is a community institution that’s existence would lead to a radically different outcome when faced with similar circumstances: namely, a fully developed, well-run food co-operative. Owned by its customers, the response of a food co-op to an economic catastrophe has the potential to radically differ from that of a corporate grocery store. For the latter, monetary profit is the sole measure of its value, and, if the store becomes unprofitable, the natural response is to cut investor losses by shutting it down. By contrast, a food co-operative exists for the mutual benefit of its members, and, in a pinch, it has the ability to substitute their labor for capital, insulating both the co-op and its community from the worst elements of an economic collapse in several ways.

First of all, as the co-op’s cash income declines as a result of the community’s increasing unemployment, it could mobilize unemployed members to do jobs that would have otherwise cost the co-op valuable cash. Such workers might be paid a subsistence wage in scrip that can be spent at the co-op, thus both saving unemployed members from total destitution while simultaneously strengthening the organization. Furthermore, depending on the depth of the crisis, this member-worker model could be extended to productive pursuits outside the co-op, i.e., they could be put to work bringing land under cultivation, the products of which would then be sold through the co-op. Indeed, such organization of the unemployed into productive enterprises could well form the foundation of a sustainable economic recovery (and has fascinating historical precedents in co-operative experiments among the unemployed in California during the Great Depression of the 1930s). Finally, since the principles that govern co-operatives includes “Concern for Community,” co-ops could organize ways to meet the needs of the vulnerable people who were functionally abandoned when their government benefits dried up. Such help could include relaxed work requirements for elder and partially disabled member workers, and the counting of hours worked in organizations that serve the especially vulnerable (such as senior centers, group homes for the developmentally disabled, etc.) towards member workers’ weekly quotas.

Given these potential benefits in an economic crisis situation, I believe that a food co-operative should not be seen as just another grocery store, but also as an insurance policy. While the most immediate possibility of serious dislocation seems like it might come from the looming Federal default, the truth is that, in our increasingly interconnected and globalized world, a disruptive shock could come from almost anywhere. At its best, globalization has allowed billions of people to specialize and trade with each other, generating the wealthiest society ever seen in human history. However, such profound interdependence has also made many communities increasingly vulnerable to the effects of systemic failure. As institutions that can, in good times, fully and efficiently access the fruits of the global economy (in fact, my food co-op is the cheapest place to get groceries in Burlington), while providing the organizational capacity for community resilience in times of collapse, a well-run food co-op is something that no responsible community should be without.

Take Action

If you agree with this argument, there are a few things you should consider doing. First, if you are fortunate enough to live in a place with an already existing food co-op, become a member, patronize it, and see what you can do as a volunteer to help advance its interests. If it does not have an existing member-worker program, encourage the board to consider launching one. At my co-op, members get a 7% discount if they work two hours per month, and 12% if they work four; while not at the scale that such a program would need to be in a crisis, simply having the infrastructure in place to organize member-workers means that a co-op will be able to respond much more nimbly when it counts.

If you do not live in a place with a food co-op, consider trying to help organize one. In New England, the Neighboring Food Co-op Association and the Cooperative Fund of New England are great organizations that provide both mentorship and resources to groups who aspire to found a co-op – for other regions, a quick Google search will often uncover valuable resources. Additionally, if you have money that you’d like to invest in a manner that promotes resilient communities while making a modest rate of return, the Cooperative Fund of New England will put your funds to good use.

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