In the past couple of years I’ve been attempting to develop an idea for a project that will help increase access to healthy food for those currently experiencing food insecurity, provide living wage employment for myself and others, and support local organic agriculture and urban farmers.
I’ve started putting my thoughts to paper in order to help create a model applicable to any community, for both my own purposes, but also for the purpose of sharing my ideas for ‘solutions’ to food insecurity and poverty.
Here is the rough rough first draft of the introductory chapter of the booklet/zine/treatise I am now writing:
EVERYBODY EATS: A NEW MODEL FOR COMMUNITY FOOD ACCESS
Food banks were only meant to be a temporary measure. It’s well past time to transition away from the charity model and into a co-operative model that provides equality and dignity.
Poverty, a major cause of food insecurity, is a complex subject. It is a variable combination of systemic, political decisions, and personal decisions/actions.
To greatly oversimplfy for the sake of brevity, poverty is a result of lack of income and of a high cost of living. Thus, addressing the systemic causes of poverty requires raising income levels and reducing the cost of living.
Throughout our society, efforts are underway to create political change, as well as to create programs and projects that provide income and resources.
This treatise will examine one possible model for a co-operative food project that will provide jobs and income, increase access to healthy food and support the efforts of local food producers and processors.
A Transitional Model
This model is designed to be a transitional model between charity food access projects and the sustainable food systems of the future. It relies on behaviour that is still considered charitable, but within the framework of a sliding scale, pay-what-you-can system, which is more akin to a regular commercial relationship than that of charity.
The project I am proposing would take the form of a legal co-operative, either a worker’s co-operative, a producers co-operative, a consumer’s co-operative or a combination of those. This format has been deliberately chosen over that of a non-profit, charity or any of the various forms of private business.
The co-operative would have as it’s purpose the distribution of food, with objectives such as increasing the availablity of food to low income households, creating living wage employment for it’s members/workers, and providing markets and marketing for local food producers and processors.
There are a few core elements of this model that distinguish it from most food co-operatives or other food security projects.
The first is a pay-what-you-can model. This model has been applied with success in a a growing number of food service establishments throughout Turtle Island. If applied properly, a PWYC model will bring in as much or more money than a fixed price model. In this way, low income people are able to access healthy, high quality food in an integrated, dignified setting.
Distribution of ‘profit’
The second aspect to this model is the distribution of ‘profit’. In a co-op, members have the option of distributing income above costs to the workers or members, putting it back into the business, or distrbuting in some way into the community. This model would either put in into new projects, or distribute it to other food security projects in the community.
Debt-free and quickly ‘profitable’
The first initiative that a co-op operating under the model I am proposing will undertake will be one in which they expect to make profitable in a short amount of time. (Most people with experience in the highly risky food service industry will be quite cynical here, but I will cover methods for a debt-free, quickly profitable business in a later chapter…). The profits from this first initative will be used to either fund more profitable initatives, to take on ‘charitable’ initiatives such as salvaged food distribution, cooking/nutrition classes, community garden projects, Meals on Wheels, etc, or will be used to support other projects in the community that fit in with this model, such as food processing, Community Supported Agriculture, local indigenous traditional food revitalization projects, distribution services, etc.
The goal here is to take on some of the responsibility of food access charities and non-profits, and fund these initiatives not with traditional charitiable fundraising tactics, but with business income.
As well, there is no clear divide in this model between profit-making business and non-profit/charity project. The profit-making business initiatives will also serve some of the same functions as the charities by making food accessible regardless of income, and the charitable programs will also allow be operated under a pay-what-you-can framework. The only difference between these initiatives being that some make a profit, whilst others ‘lose’ money.
So the long-term goal is to create a project with with various elements, some profitable, some requiring constant funding, so that each supports the other.
Some of the initiatives that I will discuss include a weekly ‘soupscription’ service, similar to a Meals on Wheels program (but available to everyone), in which bicycles are used as the delivery vehicle (where-ever possible), and the (main) item being delivered will be soup.
Speaking of bicycles, that is another major element. I will be attempting to describe a project that is as sustainable as possible; one that represents a transition to a post-fossil fuel world. Whereever possible, the use of low-impact technologies will be integrated into this project. Seeing as delivery and distribution of food is such a central part of this project, so too will bicycles be. The labour costs of bicycle delivery may be greater than that of automobile delivery, and the use of bicycles may not always be feasible, but a priority will be given to their use, not simply for sustainability reasons, but also because their use will become part of the ‘image’ of the co-operative.
Supportive Integration in local community food system
Another element of this project, aside from cooking and selling of food, is the inclusion of as many elements of food security as logistically possible, either directly or indirectly. This could mean, for instance, that the co-operative grows a certain amount of the food it produces, or it funds others to start Community Supported Agriculture Projects. If the co-operative has it’s own kitchen space, it can also support ‘incubation’ of other small food-related projects. Part of the ‘marketability’ of the co-op involves not just the element of equitable (formerly ‘charitable’) food distribution, but also the ability to bridge gaps in the local food security landscape, and to serve as support for other food related projects.
The issue of hunger and food security in our communities can not be tackled by just one project, but by many projects working in co-operation and collaboration. The role of this kind of co-operative is to help create or become part of the existing network of transitional, integrated food security projects and leverage it’s efforts to make as much change as possible.
Tailored to each community’s resources and needs
The kinds of projects that a co-operative decides to take on will depend on the community; the size of it’s population, the needs and tastes of the population, it’s geography (size and terrain and weather will impact cycling), the food related projects that are currently happening, what kind of food in available and can be produced, the cost of living in that area, the income levels, etc.
As such, the first step, which I will cover in this treatise, is research. This can happen as the work of a single individual or as a group of people who have gathered with a common purpose of starting such a project, but it is an essential step to understanding how food production, importation, exportation, processing and distribution works in your community.
Once you’ve mapped out the local food landscape, you will have a better idea of what kinds of projects are existing and required and which will be likely to succeed. This research will also include surveying as many people as possible about their food needs and desires, and determining in advance what they are willing and able to support. These connections can also be returned to later during an advance marketing stage, which would involve signing up ‘soupscribers’ or other regular ‘customers’ for advance purchases, in order to help ensure a debt-free start-up and quick profitability.
I will address this idea, as well as other ways of raising capital, such as grants available to social enterprises and co-operatives, in a later chapter.
In this treatise I will attempt to lay out some broad ideas and principles that can be applied to varied communities.
In conclusion, the main elements that will characterize the model that I am proposing include:
-pay-what-you-can, increased access model
-bicycles, other low-impact technologies and integrated permaculture principles
-multiple ‘profitable’ and ‘charitable’ elements
-aspects of community education, support and co-operation
-no debt, quick profitabilty start-up
-living wage jobs for members
In the course of preparing this treatise I will make use of the extensive research I have already conducted, as well as undertake additional research, in addition to drawing on my own personal experience in the food service industry, and with food security/access projects.
I will go into more details on the principles I have discussed above, and provide some ideas for potential initiatives/businesses, such as food carts, catering, bike-based delivery and distribution, community meals, etc, and provide examples of these kinds of businesses.
I’ll also go into detail on some other important principles in community food systems, such as creating and fostering direct connections between producers and consumers (know your farmer).
Please contact me if you wish to provide any input.