The cooperative movement often frames itself as an effort to regain local and democratic control over key community resources. Food, as a necessity of life, is mostly certainly a “key community resource”, control over which has been depleted by corporate consolidation in the food system, commodity speculation, and again, poverty. Therefore, food cooperatives could and should serve as a holistic solution to food deserts in under-resourced communities, right?
The answer can be yes, but it shouldn’t be considered a foregone conclusion. Whether you are an outsider looking to offer a helping hand to neighbors in a food desert, or a resident of one yourself, it’s important to recognize the profound and lasting effects that resource scarcity, particularly food insecurity, has on individuals and communities. In food deserts, the common cultural values that drive the development of most food co-ops–consuming whole food diets, supporting local and sustainable producers, democratic participation–struggle to develop in an environment where survival depends on maximizing the caloric return for every dollar spent. Federal subsidies for corn, soy, wheat, and sugar have transformed calorically dense, nutritionally-deficient junk food into affordable staples for millions of Americans, while fruits and vegetables remain out of reach. When the budget runs dry, many find themselves in the food pantry line, an experience that represents a loss of control over one’s food: what you receive, when you receive it, and how you receive it is all determined by someone else.
This is not to say that people living in low-income communities or food deserts have no interest or experience with healthy food, or locally/sustainably sourced food for that matter. It is also not to say that there is no interest in the democratic participation required by a co-op. The point is that successful efforts to improve food access require that these structural barriers be understood, respected, and addressed by the community as a whole.
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