Leandra Nichola, Community Engagement Manager
Hold on to your hat! Here’s some (not-so-shocking) news: It costs more to shop at the Co-op than a conventional grocery store. Natural food costs more to produce than conventional food. And, even with our added buying-power through the National Cooperative Grocers (NCG) and despite our deemphasis on profit-making, the products on our shelves are more expensive for everyone in the food system, including shoppers. We know that choosing local, organic, and fair or direct trade products are good for us, for workers, and for our planet (and, almost always, are super tasty!). But, making those choices requires allocating a larger proportion of a family’s income to food than buying conventionally-produced food. The Co-op is working to make natural food more economically accessible by adding weekly produce deals, through our participation in the Co+op Basics program (adding a whole line of reduced-cost items to our shelves), and by accepting federal and state food and cash benefits as a method of payment. Still, very few folks who experience low food security are shopping primarily at the Co-op; this is in large part due to the option to purchase cheaper food elsewhere.
Food security is a big problem: in the metro DC area, 1 in 10 people is food insecure. And, it’s in every neighborhood. Most of Takoma Park is somewhere between 25,000 and 100,000 tons of food short each year. Simultaneously, the Co-op is charged with the lofty mission of bringing wholesome food to our community. To us, that doesn’t mean to just those in our community who can afford to set aside a little more for their grocery budget. So, we’ve been making efforts to support food security in Takoma Park and beyond outside of the store.
Most excitingly, this year we have formed a partnership with Kokua Foods, a food waste recovery and food security project of the youth-run non-profit Small Things Matter. Three times per month, Kokua Foods hosts food distributions for food insecure families in our community. They rescue thousands of pounds of food and get it to folks who need it. Our role is to store some of that rescued food (allowing the group to give out much more fresh produce!), donate snacks and other items as we can, and assist with staffing the distributions. The Co-op’s participation is growing capacity to do this work and is improving the sustainability of the project by sharing some of the work of long-time, dedicated volunteers.
Another way we are supporting food security is by ensuring our own food waste is diverted from the dumpster and compost bin and into bellies. Free samples and damaged and expired food first goes to our staff. When we have more than our staff can use, we rely on our partnership with Manna Food Center’s Community Food Rescue program to get food to folks in our community who need it. Three times a week, a volunteer picks up boxes of produce, dry goods, and refrigerated items. Last fiscal year, we diverted more than 10,000 pounds of usable food to Shepherd’s Table and Adventist Community Services through this program.
Lastly, our participation in NCG has perks that support food security. It’s really true that co-ops are stronger together. And, together this last year, NCG donated $26,000 to Feeding America food banks around the country in each community where an NCG co-op operates. Also, collectively, NCG co-ops donate more than 1.5 million pounds of food to food pantries each year. Being part of a network of stores that operate with the same values as us allows us to exponentially increase our impact in our respective communities.
As you probably already know, the Co-op is more than a grocery store. Dollars spent here do more than keep our lights on, stock thoughtful products on our shelves, and compensate our staff. Every dollar supports our community, including by reducing food insecurity. So, when you make the choice to shop here – whether it’s a major stretch for your budget or it fits right in – know that you’re not only putting yummy, nutritious food on your plate. You’re supporting a humane workplace, being kinder to our planet, and aiding those who are less fortunate in our community.