A Different Way

by Tim Sullivan, Interim GM

from the January 2018 newsletter

I have spent pretty much my whole life working in the food industry. I started at 13 in my dad's small town grocery store where I worked through the first couple years of college. I swore I'd never work in the grocery business again. When I went back to college though, I worked at an independent supermarket in Fort Collins, CO and spent the majority of my career with Hy-Vee Foods. I owned and ran a small restaurant where I bought everything I possibly could from local famers, including whole organic hogs and did most of the processing work in-house. I even did some consulting work for a honey processor and ran a few hives myself as a hobby. I hope I have learned a few things over the years, but my time at Common Ground has given me the opportunity to really explore and think about our food systems in the United States. The only conclusion I came to for sure is; it is broken.


We have been hearing a lot about how broken our health-care system is over the past year, but the way we grow, produce, process, distribute, and consume food is equally broken. The reality is over the long haul our broken food system could do way more damage to our health and the world. Most of my friends back in Iowa are farmers (please don't send this piece to them), so I have a deep appreciation for their love of the land. Unfortunately, our government policies such as the crop insurance program and big ag's stranglehold (especially here in the heartland) have made it nearly impossible for them to change how they farm. It can be done, but it is not easy.


Government policy and big corporate interests have pretty much brought us to this point. With all the science behind climate change and agriculture's role in it, the government should lead the effort to restore us to sanity and sustainable practices, right? Not a chance. Only one thing is going to make that happen; you, me, and all food consumers demanding something different, and doing it with our pocketbook. Currently we see evidence of the consumer's dollar purchasing power in the way the big food chains are jumping on the organic bandwagon.


If you're interested in learning about our food system's challenges and possible solutions, I would encourage you to pick up a book called Kiss the Ground by Josh Tickell. He tells a story that is easy for non-farmers like me to understand, and I have worked in the business long enough and have enough farmer friends to believe he makes a good case for a better way to do it. One of his key points is a concept called regenerative agriculture. It is a method of farming that will not only produce healthier food, but will help restore the earth's CO2 balance. It is all about the soil. Restore the health of the soil, restore the health of our planet. The good news is we have farmers using these methods here in Illinois, and the Illinois Stewardship Alliance is conducting farmer workshops on regenerative farming.


The last 50 years have been really tough on the planet. Any google search will give you more stats then you can handle. I am unsure humanity will survive if we pour on another 50 years just like the last 50. As a baby boomer I feel a responsibility for those 50 years (not that I believe any other generation would have necessarily done better), and choose to spend the rest of my short stay on our planet doing less damage, and maybe even working to restore some of the damage. That is the only way it will work. One person at a time until there are enough of us to really make a difference.


I am convinced Common Ground and other food co-ops can help lead this effort. We can support and expand local food production. As a matter of fact it is one of our Ends; "Our local food system is equitable, robust and environmentally sound." Will food in the stores cost more? Maybe, probably, but when you look at our food's true costs, it will be way less expensive. (Look for my other article in this news letter to talk about food costs.) Josh says in his book "This is a deciding moment for humanity. Our fate depends on what we eat and how we produce that food. It depends on whether we continue to ignore our impact on the ecosystem or embrace the fact that we are inseparable from it". I believe with absolute certainty that everything is connected, impact one thing and impact it all. What are we going to choose?


I welcome your thoughts and insights on our food system and Common Ground's role.