Looking Back To Our Future

04/22/2015 - 2:21pm
In a black and white photo, a man stands in front of the door of a house featuring a sign reading "Tupelo Branch: Mississippi Federated Cooperatives"

This post was originally published at neweconomyweek.org.

Climate change, shifting demographics, and sobering economic realities for a growing number of Americans have sparked increased awareness of the need to re-examine how working class people and communities of color will successfully participate in tomorrow’s economy, the one they will inherit when our nation becomes an ethnic plurality.

Much of this attention, for good reason, has gone into the food system. The problems with how we get our food are a microcosm of the problems with our economy.  Production for maximized industrial profit, rather than holistic community priorities leads to brutal inequities in the workforce, lack of access to safe and nutritious foods, and environmental inequality. But how do you achieve racial equity while trying to transform something as complicated as a food system?

At the Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive (CoFED), we draw inspiration from the low-income populations and the communities of color that have endured disruption of their traditional and sustainable food systems and have responded with resilience and ingenuity.

We see blueprints for a road forward in legacies of community ownership of our common food system, be it the farm cooperatives and “pig banks” led by Fannie Lou Hammer, the quietly powerful mutual-aid societies brought into the spotlight by W.E.B Du Bois and others, or the lending circles introduced into the U.S. by immigrant Mexican families in communities like San Francisco’s Mission District.

For Hamer, food was central to her vision for eliminating the lack of access to opportunity that kept her people in poverty. She built a farm cooperative, “The Freedom Farm Cooperative of Sunflower County” and a “pig bank” to provide free pigs for “blacks to raise, breed, and farm so they could provide economic and food sustenance for their families”. In her innovation, she was not alone. As early as the 1940s a group of 20 African-Americans in Harlem, New York City started small as a bulk buying club (much like modern day CSAs) and raised enough capital to start a storefront, which they called “Modern Co-op Grocery Store.”

They knew then what so many of us realize today: communities have the ability to work together to increase access to healthy food while building thriving, equitable, and resilient local economies owned by the people who rely on them.

We also look to current examples in cities as distinct as Jackson, Mississippi; Greensboro, North Carolina, and New York City to establish food enterprises that provide quality food, support local farmers, and enhance the lives of the poor, the working class, and people of color.

Historical stories of collective ownership as well as these contemporary examples inform the work we do providing tools and training to campus groups striving to create strong cooperatively-run food businesses. It is important that the students we work with understand where these models come from.  Authors like Jessica Gordon Nembhardt, Alison Hope Alkon, and Julian Agyeman have done our movement a great service by bringing these histories to the forefront.   Allied groups such as Cooperation Texas, The Toolbox for Education and Social Action (TESA), and AORTA have also done tremendous work to create popular education resources that are accessible and reflective of diverse audiences.

Restoring a food system that sustainably meets our needs will not be easy. But if we build the creative partnerships that reintegrate food systems with an eye to local production, community ownership, and targeted wealth generation; if we inform our forward-looking strategies for economic empowerment with an eye to past success; and if we stand in solidarity with those who fight practices that further racial injustice, we will be well on our way.

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