Local Food With a Big Twist: Oregon Super-Cooperative Takes Aim at the Corporate Food System
Why local isn’t enough
In our current food system, Varma sees struggling farmers who end up with just 14 cents of every dollar consumers spend on groceries and migrant farmworkers who pick our produce for pennies on the pound. And, to top it off, we as eaters get shortchanged with “a whole lot of really cheap, crappy, nutritionally poor garbage food, and a whole bunch of planet destruction to go along with it.”
To resolve some of those problems, the local food movement has pushed for community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs and farmers markets, which offer fresher, more nutritious alternatives to industrialized produce. Both have grown quickly: the number of farmers markets in the United States exploded from 1,755 in 1994 to more than 8,000 in 2014, while the number of community-supported agriculture organizations increased from 400 in 2001 to more than 1,400 in 2005, according to the United States Department of Agriculture Marketing Service .
Our Table acknowledges the need for modern convenience but proves it can be done locally, sustainably, and ethically.
“[These solutions] are premised on the idea that farmers should be independent little businesses competing with all other little farmers, or big farmers as the case may be, and the market will sort it all out,” he says.
Our Table goes beyond that model by helping those farmers cooperate instead of compete. And the co-op helps with other common problems in the farming business too. In a 2010 report examining local food systems, the United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service found that small farmers often don’t have the capacity to invest in marketing, to process or package their products, or to meet high-volume orders. All of these factors make it difficult for local food systems to meet the growing demand for their products.
In Our Table’s model, the cooperative can invest in trucks, processing equipment, marketing materials, and even farm supplies, bringing down the cost and allowing for more democratic decision-making on what services are most effective and needed.
“The key here becomes interdependence,” Varma says. “If we all want to thrive, each of us has to thrive.”