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Networks of Networks and Co-operation between Co-operatives -

by Hannah Renglich, September 2012

This is a wonderful moment in time for food co-operatives!  In fact, according to Noémi Giszpenc, executive director of the Cooperative Development Institute and co-op historian David Thompson, it very well may be a third wave of food co-op organizing in North America after the Depression-era food co-ops of the 1930s and the natural food co-ops of the 1970s.  Today’s co-ops are innovating, blending old and new models, and are concerned with community health, including issues of affordability and accessibility.  Whereas the old wave co-ops traditionally had one class of member-owners, today’s co-ops tend towards multistakeholder ownership, including workers, farmers, eaters, and sometimes even community partners.

Many of these co-ops are located in food deserts in hollowed out urban centres.  Many consider food justice and labour practices just as important as procuring local and sustainably-produced food.  Some of them are retailers, who also provide programming and activities that equip their communities with valuable food skills like canning and preserving.  Some are food processors practising fair trade and building the co-operative supply chain.  Others are farm co-operatives, pioneering relationships with local institutions or skillfully using open source software to manage and distribute produce from many farms to a local eatership.

According to Jake Schlachter of the U.S.-based Food Co-op Initiative, the last year has seen a bumper crop of food co-ops opening, and indeed, we’ve noticed the very same trend in Ontario.  The Local Organic Food Co-ops Network, hosted by the Ontario Natural Food Co-op, has expanded from 20 co-operatives to 42 in only 18 months.  Of those twenty-two new co-ops, three are business successions from sole proprietorships to co-operatives, two are co-op stores set to open in towns where the last grocery store has recently closed, two are co-op cafés, one is a co-op brewery, and one is a co-op daycare with a strong food focus.  Within the next few months, we’re looking forward to the opening of two brand new retail co-ops, the West End Food Co-op in Toronto and the Collingwood Community Food Co-op.

Local Organic Food Co-ops across Ontario

The great difference between Ontario’s food co-op organizing and what’s happening in the United States is that we are including farmers and farm co-operatives in our organizing, and particularly within the Local Organic Food Co-ops Network.  This is an attempt at holism and an explicit acknowledgement that farmers are the basis of our food chain.  In order to adequately address the complexities of the food system, they must be involved in the conversations and actively engaged in the transformative activities that food organizations, including co-ops, take on.

John Blackwell tours Russ Christianson around Sexsmith Farm

One fantastic example of such a farming co-op is the Sexsmith Farm Co-operative (SFC), a community of farmers whose mission is to cultivate a sustainable food production and distribution system rooted in Niagara.  In 2010, five local farmers united to grow food for Community Shared Agriculture programs in South Niagara.  SFC incorporated in April 2011, bringing together local farmers to meet local demand for naturally-grown produce through existing CSA programs. That year they served 48 families baskets of fresh vegetables (up from 24 shares in member programs the year prior) for a 20-week season with more than 6 acres in market garden production using natural methods.  Additional produce was distributed through three markets and tailgate distribution to areas underserved through traditional food channels.

Sexsmith Farm

Education is an inseparable component of agriculture and Sexsmith Farm, an 80-acre, 140-year-old family-owned farm, has shared its educational resources with a growing number of schools and alternate education agencies for more than 10 years.   Most recently, the Co-op has partnered with Fort Erie Secondary School to make use of their revitalized greenhouse.  Fort Erie Secondary School donated the use of their greenhouse, work room and classroom facilities as needed for classes and workshops. The co-op is utilizing the school greenhouse for food production and actively engages student participation.  In exchange, the students have access to field space at the farm to grow crops for their cafeteria and culinary program.

Debbie Sexsmith, left, Brent Gorrie, Erica Everett, Cameron MacDonald, Faith Schaeffer, vice-principal Norbert Kuebeck before going for a tour of the greenhouse at Fort Erie Secondary School. (Photo courtesy of Fort Erie Times)

Deeply entrenched in their community, the Sexsmith Farm Co-op has additionally partnered with Fort Erie Aboriginal Head Start, Fort Erie Multicultural Centre and Fort Erie Native Friendship Centre in farm-based learning opportunities.  Fort Erie Aboriginal Head Start has committed to partnership in a Children’s Garden Project and to farm tours for two class groups in spring and fall.  Fort Erie Multicultural Centre continues to refer participants to SFC Community Gardening Workshops.  SFC is also a proud member of the Farm-based Education Association, Local Organic Food Co-operatives Network, Niagara Local Food Co-op (also a LOFC member), and has participated in meetings for the forming of Fort Erie’s Food Security Network.

John Blackwell chairing a meeting with Ontario Natural Food Co-op, Niagara Local Food Co-op, Our Community Food Store, and Local Organic Food Co-ops Network representatives, summer 2011

In early 2012, the Ontario Natural Food Co-op was pleased to support the Sexsmith Farm Co-op through its Community Development Fund, helping facilitate the hiring and work of a Farm-Based Education Assistant.  ONFC recognizes the important role of local and regional farming as well as grower co-operatives in its vision of creating a sustainable world from seed to plate, and through its commitment to the Local Organic Food Co-ops Network and the creation of the Ontario Natural private label, is working to directly foster relationships with Ontario growers.

In return, the Sexsmith Farm Co-op has become actively involved with the foundational work of the Local Organic Food Co-ops Network, with its President John Blackwell sitting on the Steering Committee of the Network, as well as participating in the LOFC Governance Working Group.  The reciprocity of this relationship has helped to foster and support the growth of both the Sexsmith Farm Co-op and the Local Organic Food Co-ops Network.  In turn, the Local Organic Food Co-ops Network supports the emergence and development of more food and farm co-operatives, and the virtuous cycle continues.

We hope to see many such co-ops, strong in their governance and educational capacities, developing over the coming years, and look forward to supporting them through ONFC’s Local Organic Food Co-ops Network.

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Networks of Networks and Co-operation between Co-operatives