by Mia Hanneken, Education Coordinator
Food co-ops arose as an alternative to the conventional, mainstream superstores. As co-op owners, we know this. We agree that organic is best. We're conscious of the dangers of widely used pesticides. We avoid additives, sugars, and preservatives. We know co-ops formed as a reliable source of quality food, allowing the community to actively avoid the food giants that mass produced low quality food. These are universal values we share as co-op owners, otherwise we wouldn't have felt called to invest in this movement. Most consumers, in general, believe that their shopping dollars can serve as a driving force toward social and environmental change in our society. Yet, we see more independent businesses struggling and more massive corporations thriving. I read an article from the Journal of Marketing Management entitled, "Can consumers really buy alternative foods at a big box supermarket?" Author Josee Johnston says that "valuing the idea of shopping for change cannot be equated with actual shopping behaviors" (2017). I feel this statement is an incredibly accurate perspective within our co-op community, meaning that C-U consumers may support the co-op ideals, may be co-op owners, but justify grocery shopping elsewhere because Schnucks is on the route home from work, or Aldi's prices are too good to pass up. Our lives are busy, and our expenses are high. The convenience of quickly swinging by the store on your way home makes sense. Saving money always makes sense. This game of tug-of-war between values and practicality has been an ongoing conversation in my own household too. To add, every major big box store has an ever-expanding organic selection. So as we're taking advantage of convenience and low prices, we can also feel we are being healthy, responsible consumers.
Take a step back, though. It's not quite so simple.
Over the last decade, the demand for organic, all natural food has skyrocketed. This organic "niche" used to be exclusive to health food stores or associated with the counterculture hippies of the food co-op movement. For a variety of reasons, organic has entered the mainstream, and mainstream is what food corporations do best. Since these superstores exist solely for profit, they raced to meet consumers' demand for organics, and when they realized every other superstore was doing the same, it became a race to beat their competitor's prices. The result of this is a real catch-22. Walmart, Meijer, Schnucks, and Aldi growing their organic produce means a massive improvement in organic accessibility. Certified organic is found in any given grocery, and finally it's available at reasonable price points, allowing formerly excluded populations the chance to consume higher quality foods. That's amazing. Food accessibility is imperative.
But again, it's not quite so simple. Unfortunately, for every action, there's an equal reaction. Massive food corporations have tons of organic options, but they aren't sourcing them from small, family-owned organic farms. It would be impossible for those small, family farms to meet the demand that food giants place on their producers. So now, organic practices are being loosely adopted by huge agribusinesses, the same industrial farms that co-op owners originally refused to support. The few large organic family farms that can supply large quantities are being bought out by major food conglomerates. Organic produce is also being shipped from abroad from producers forced to meet the corporate demands of more product for less money.
Low cost organic food means the same thing as low cost conventional food. It means the producers are being paid less and less. It means the base level workers are expected to produce more and more. And it means the working conditions decline in the desperate attempt to meet these expectations.
There's also widespread debate about loopholes around the rigid guidelines to qualify as "certified organic." Many factory farms producing certified organic products have found ways to minimally adapt their traditional practices in order to technically meet the standards. Brian Barth contributed to the Modern Farmer website about this issue in the article, "The Bad News About the Organic Industry." He outlines the latest buzzwords in organic food production and ways factory farms are navigating around the rules. As just one example, the USDA requires that "free-range" poultry mustn't be confined to cages and must have "continuous access to the outdoors (though not necessarily in an environment where they are able to forage)" (2015). Barth also highlights The Cornucopia Institute, an organization that dedicates their effort to uphold the integrity of the organic certification. They conducted a huge project on investigating organic factory farms to prove the fraudulence. On one farm, they found "free-range" poultry confined to buildings with access to outdoor spaces so small that the pasture was entirely exhausted and all chickens were unable to access the area at the same time. Yet, by technicality, they are certified organic. For more in depth research, I recommend checking out their website for detailed information on their findings (see below).
The current state of the organic industry is a multi-layered issue with so many arguments and counterarguments. Of course, I can boil it down to "shop at the co-op for real organic, ethical food," but as I stated earlier, even I'm torn between the ethics and the money savings. I wholeheartedly believe in the co-op values and movement, and even though it's tempting to buy a $.99 gallon of milk at Aldi, we all have to remember that our money can--and does--make an impact, both positive and negative. It isn't easy to see the impact we are making when shopping at a superstore. The money is shipped off to the CEO, the stakeholders, a couple cents dropped to the producers, a hefty percentage to a marketing team. We don't see the result of our money, but that doesn't mean it isn't there. The difficult truth is that we contribute--however little--to the state of our food system by accepting the quality of food, overlooking the conditions under which it's produced, and financially supporting it because of our personal convenience.
That's a pretty heavy-handed statement, but it's not wrong. Think about the state of our country, our society, our world, and consider that it evolved to this because we as a population didn't force it to change. Consider, also, the power that we hold, not just as a population but as individuals. Each of us has a little bit of power in the future. Our little bit of power makes an impact, and we all get to choose what kind of impact. I genuinely believe the impact we are making at the co-op is a positive one, the benefits of which reach beyond the walls of Common Ground and further than the city limits of Urbana. As you continue your daily tasks and chores, remember your little bit of power. Don't write off the difference you can make with something as routine as grocery shopping. Put your power where your values are.
Johnston, Josee. "Can consumers buy alternative foods at a big box supermarket?" Journal of Marketing Management. 2017.
Barth, Brian. "The Bad News About the Organic Industry." Modern Farmer. 2015.
The Cornucopia Institute. <https://www.cornucopia.org/organic-factory-farm-investigation/>