Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Co-oping Food Policy

In this week's Gotham Gazette there's an article about the prospects that food co-ops can address the public health issue of access to healthy foods: "As the city confronts the health effects of the "grocery gap," many see food cooperatives as way to improve access to fresh food and think government should do more to encourage the businesses. "Like supermarkets, Green Carts, farmers' markets and bodegas, food co-ops can be a great way to get affordable, nutritious food into neighborhoods where fresh produce can be hard to find," says Ben Thomases, the city's Food Policy Coordinator. Holtz thinks the city could help co-ops succeed in underserved neighborhoods. "If the city had a low interest loan program, that would help clear the biggest hurdle," he says."

"Kumbaya mi'lord, kumbaya." What a bunch of romantic nonsense-and the "let one thousand flowers bloom" approach is only going to distract the city from the real essence of effective public policy: insuring that neighborhoods have good food and good jobs, in other words, supermarkets. Wasting time and energy on the evanescent phenomenon of food co-ops will simply divert us from what should be the city's the main goal; and giving financial support, except in the most rare of circumstances, would be a waste.

Our friend, Ben the Food Czar feels a bit differently on all of this: "Indeed, the supermarket report suggests providing financing for private supermarkets and grocery stores in high-need communities as one of its solutions. "Any financial incentives the supermarket commission recommends to encourage supermarkets to locate in underserved communities should be made to food co-ops as well," Thomases said in an e-mail."

We disagree. If a community is so motivated that it wants to create a food co-op then we should say, "Go in good health." But to pledge public monies when it hasn't even been determined what kind of financial incentives for supermarkets make sense, is not a sound suggestion in our view.

And the co-ops, just like the fruitty peddlers, do compete with the stores. But where the stores thrive, the co-ops often don't: "To the adherents, co-ops offer many advantages -- and face challenges -- the more conventional supermarkets do not. The East Village's Fourth Street Food Co-op was started in 1995, replacing another that started in '73. As its neighborhood has thrived, the co-op has fought to survive in the face of intense competition from two nearby Whole Foods, a Trader Joe's and health food stores."

We did, however, get a kick out of the fact that the East Village co-op has its own ethics committee. If a neighborhood has enough folks who believe that a food co-op should have an ethics committee, then there's a good chance that such an enterprise can survive without any public money.

As the Gazette highlights: "Our ethics committee goes through products we currently and potentially will carry in order to ensure the company is a small business with sustainable practices and pays workers a fair wage," says Cassandra Flechsig, a membership coordinator. "None of our products are tested on animals and we purchase organic, local, and fair trade, whenever possible." She also notes, as do other co-op members, that the issue is about more than shopping - it is also about forming community. "It's easy to get lost in a city as big as New York City," Flechsig said. "The co-op provides a nurturing environment that welcomes new members and makes them feel they belong to something bigger than themselves."

"We are the World," indeed. Let's not get diverted by all of this romantic commune ambiance and keep focused on more substantive, real world concerns.