Food Co-ops for Social Justice

By Brittany Barton for Change Food

Food cooperatives impact communities in ways that go beyond food. Right now, over 45,000 co-ops in the country are providing low cost, healthy food to its members. These stores are community-run businesses based on the cooperative principles that each member has a voice in decisions regarding the production and distribution of its food.
One example is The Seward Community Co-op; created in 1972, it remains a staple in its Minneapolis neighborhood. So much so that they have opened a second location, named the Friendship Store. Friend of Change Food and former TEDxManhattan speaker LaDonna Redmond is a key player in it’s creation. The store is located in the Bryant-Central neighborhood, a predominantly African American community that has been without a full service grocery for over 30 years.

Google Creative Commons

Google Creative Commons

Over five hundred Co-op owners joined the Friendship store within the first week. “People are ready,” says Redmond. The store offers quality food and quality jobs, with 50 percent of employees living less than a mile from the store. This is a huge advantage for a community that struggles with employment discrimination. Co-op employees are provided benefits, insurance and paid $15 an hour.

Food price was a priority concern for community members. Many residents are on tight budgets, so the Co-op has implemented unique cost saving measures. Members are encouraged to bring their own containers and stock up on bulk items like coffee, flour, spices and dish soap, as much of the product cost is wrapped up in the packaging. They also have a dedicated discount rack for bruised produce and products with scratched packaging. The store is continuing to look for ways to reduce costs for the members.

Along with the second store, the Seward Co-op has launched the Co-op Creamery Neighborhood Café. The Cafe was designed to highlight the Co-op’s local produce and inspire new ways of cooking. It is a unique farm to table experience using all Co-op ingredients, including produce seconds, or ugly produce. A third of our food is wasted every year because it is unsightly, with bumps, bruises and scratches. The Cafe is salvaging these perfectly nutritious foods in their menu offerings.

To stay aligned with the Co-op mission of sustaining a healthy community, the Cafe offers all employees a living wage. They have done away with the traditional tipping system and are paying everyone set rates. Food prices are a bit higher to reflect this but the Cafe feels strongly that all workers be adequately compensated and not at the mercy of customers.

Redmond’s role at the Co-op is serving her vision of food justice. When she spoke at TEDxManhattan in 2013, she said, “Food justice is not just about the nutrition…. it’s about dignity. It’s about being visible.” The Friendship store is doing just that. It sees a need in a neglected community and is filling the void. Community members feel seen and heard when their needs are met. And quality food is a basic need and human right.

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In Redmond’s TEDxManhattan Talk, she explains how the U.S. has a long history of unjust food systems. The act of pushing people off their land to take over cultivation and hunting ground gave way to the industrial food system, or use of slavery in agriculture.  Today’s system is not much better. Redmond states it is based on modern day slavery with the exploitation of immigrant labor.

When Redmond took a long look at America’s food history, she found, ““There has never been a fair, just, or healthy food system in the United States of America.”

Industrial food today breeds other threats, namely chronic diet-related diseases. And these noncommunicable diseases are shown to be closely connected to the public health concern of physical violence. When race, class and gender are brought into the food justice conversation, it becomes a larger issue of social justice.

Redmond has a vision for changing the food system. It calls for dismantling the global food industrial complex. Citizens have to turn non-profit will into political will. She believes our country must go beyond the Farm Bill to create legislation that pays living wages along with providing quality, nutritious food. Food justice merged with social justice is the only way forward.

The Friendship Co-op store and Co-op Creamery Neighborhood Café are steps in the right direction.


Find out more about Seward Community Co-op and Co-op Creamery Neighborhood Café here.

Watch LaDonna Redmond’s TEDxManhattan talk, Food + Justice = Democracy.

Brittany Barton is a contributing writer for Change Food. As the creative behind SparkleKitchen.com, Brittany offers real food recipes, sustainable living guidance and inspiration for others to become more sparkly versions of themselves.

Change Food is a nonprofit whose mission is to connect and transform the food we eat, the people who produce it, and the world in which it is grown. To read and learn more, visit The Guide to Good Food blog.  

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