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Homegrown Goes Gangsta: Fixing our Food Supply with Co-ops and Urban Gardens


Written By: A. Coffin

At some point, after hearing one too many news reports about this food or that food being unhealthy or swimming in chemicals, you start thinking about some homegrown options. The problem with that concept is you don’t live on a farm, or you already work a billion hours a week doing something else that doesn’t involve hoes or manure. But you still want healthy uncontaminated food. If only there was an option to fixing our food supply problems…

Enter the food co-op, an idea whose time has come around more than once. This go 'round, however, it’s not just for hippies who sit around reading The Mother Earth News. Co-ops have gone mainstream, and actually, they’ve gone further than that.

A Short History of the Idea of the Co-op

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s make sure we understand what a co-op is and what a co-op does. Co-ops are nothing new. Co-op is short for cooperative, and cooperative work efforts have been around forever. Societies learned early on that sharing the effort and the rewards of hunting, gathering, sheltering, and defending, simply made lives easier.

According to StrongerTogether.com, in the 19th century, as the population moved from farms to the cities, they found that they had to pay private stores for their food, usually at a high cost. Workers improved their costs by banding together to make purchases. The first recognized food co-op was in Rochdale, England.

A cooperative, simply put, is a non-profit business formed for a singular purpose, where members share the risks or rewards. Counting all food and non-food co-ops in the U.S. today, there are some 47,000 serving 130 million people, according to Arroyo Food Co-op.

History of Co-ops

The Guiding Principles of Co-ops

Co-ops are generally formed based on the seven Rochdale Principles, according to the organization's website. These principles evolved slightly into the following ideas that modern co-ops follow, according to the International Co-op Alliance:

  • Voluntary and Open Membership

Co-operatives are voluntary organizations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.

  • Democratic Member Control

Co-operatives are democratic organizations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions. Men and women serving as elected representatives are accountable to the membership. In primary co-operatives, members have equal voting rights (one member, one vote) and co-operatives at other levels are organized in a democratic manner, as well.

  • Member Economic Participation

Members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their co-operative. At least part of that capital is usually the common property of the co-operative. Members usually receive limited compensation, if any, on capital subscribed as a condition of membership. Members allocate surpluses for any or all of the following purposes: developing their co-operative, possibly by setting up reserves, part of which, at least would be indivisible; benefiting members in proportion to their transactions with the cooperative; and supporting other activities approved by the membership.

  • Autonomy and Independence

Cooperatives are autonomous, self-help organizations controlled by their members. If they enter into agreements with other organizations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their co-operative autonomy.

  • Education, Training and Information

Cooperatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their cooperatives. They inform the public - particularly young people and opinion leaders - about the nature and benefits of co-operation.

  • Cooperation among Cooperatives

Co-operatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the cooperative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.

  • Concern for Community

Co-operatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members.

The New Cooperatives

The second wave of co-ops prospered in the 1970’s, and even today, most people that think of co-ops have that hippie impression of them. Additionally, there are other forms besides regular co-ops, such as Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), where you buy in for a share of the food grown, and you can get discounts if you work at the farm. They even make deliveries to local cities.

Now more than ever, co-ops, CSAs, and urban gardens are becoming mainstream, as people try to figure out ways to avoid a national food supply that seems poisonous. It appears far better to grow your own food than buy vegetables from Mexico or China, or to eat food grown here that is genetically modified without your knowledge.

In particular, the recession and decay of our cities give co-ops new focus. In urban areas, co-op gardens and co-op stores abound, albeit somewhat, dare I say it, ‘underground.’  Interestingly, they have become a cheeky rebellion of sorts. There are groups of people saying, “We don’t want what you have to offer, and we aren’t going to buy it or eat it.”

Gangsta Gardens

Ron Finley is a guerilla gardener in ravaged South Central Los Angeles, a place he says, where "the drive-thrus are killing more people than the drive-bys."

Ron Finley © 2014

He grows food in his tiny strip of yard, in vacant lots, anywhere there is dirt.

In interviews with TED (Technology, Engineering, and Design), Finley considers himself a ‘renegade ecolutionary.’ He evangelizes about food being the problem and the solution. He exhorts people to ‘take the food and take back their health.’ He invites people to take something from the gardens, and to bring labor to help. He is not about sitting around in meetings discussing changes. He’s about getting a hoe and shovel and feeding people good food, food that they’re invested in, food that they know is real.

Because of Ron Finley and his renegades, it is now no longer illegal for him to plant vegetables. Last month, the LA City Council voted 15-0 to allow it. Prior to that, a warrant was issued for Finley for growing food on property that he says was “a piece of land that they could care less about.”

This has been the case for many urban gardeners and co-operatives; they have to get variances to allow food growth on urban properties that sit and decay. It can be an act of defiance to grow tomatoes, and why it’s kind of an ‘underground’ experience.

Ron Finley plants vegetable gardens in South Central LA — in abandoned lots, traffic medians, along the curbs. Why? For fun, for defiance, for beauty and to offer some alternative to fast food in a community where "the drive-thrus are killing more people than the drive-bys."

Final Thoughts on Co-ops, CSAs, and Urban Gardens

  • Cooperatives and urban gardens are hidden gems. All it takes is a little effort to find them. Take a look at coopdirectory.org for a list of co-ops or localharvest.org/csa for a list of CSAs.
  • You don’t have to be a member of a cooperative to shop at one. Really! All you have to do is find a co-op or CSA or urban garden, and ‘dig in.’
  • Consider helping urban gardens flourish by lending some time. It’s democracy in action, and a little rebellion all at once. How fun is that!

~~~~~

Other Articles of Interest:

Is Our Food Killing Us? A Murder Mystery About Gluten, GMOs & Our Food Supply

The Food Fight Over Transparency

John Deere Braces for Dear John from Farmers

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road? To Get Back From China

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