Published in the middle of the Local Organic Food Co-ops' 3rd Annual Assembly last November, this Toronto Star article created great momentum and enthusiasm in the middle of the gathering! The West End Food Co-op has just launched an Open the Store Doors bond campaign and looks forward to serving the Parkdale community soon!
Changing the World Through Food
Published On Mon Nov 28 2011 by Catharine Porter
Hey Occupy Toronto foodies: Instead of holing up inside the basement of a city-owned building on Queen West, you should come to the basement of the Community Health Centre in Parkdale.
Here, something truly radical is brewing: the first food co-operative built in Toronto in 28 years.
By next spring, the West End Food Co-operative will appear like a small grocery store in the basement of the community centre, its wooden shelves stocked with locally grown vegetables and locally made soaps. In the centre of the store will be a kitchen, where store employees will lead workshops with clients from upstairs. Workshops could include cooking with sex workers, or teaching Roma refugee families how to can tomatoes. And there will be a small café, where members can pick up a cup of fair-trade coffee and warm peach pie, made from the extra peaches a local farmer dropped off.
The store won’t be owned by distant, unknown shareholders. It will be owned by the people who shop there, work there and the farmers who supply it.
“We’re trying to take the economic system in our own hands and feed ourselves and our community,” said Ayal Dinner, the West End Co-op’s operations co-ordinator, who gave me a tour of the space Monday afternoon.
Co-operatives are an old idea. The most famous was started in 1844 by a group of miserably poor cotton spinners in Rochdale, in northern England. Alone, they couldn’t afford flour and sugar. Together, they got a discount price. Some things are that simple. They also learned that by working together, they could improve other things. All co-operatives today still run along the basic Rochdale principles of open membership, democratic control, education and concern for community.
How often do you think of democracy when you are shopping for hot dogs?
In Toronto, we haven’t seen any new food co-operatives since the last gasp of the counter-culture movement in the early 1980s. Until now.
And it’s not just here. Across Ontario, 13 new food co-ops are under development.
“There’s a renaissance,” Russ Christianson, a co-operative developer with the Ontario Co-operative Association, told me.
The cooks are members of the local food movement. But they share the same table as the Occupiers.
Some statistics: Three companies own 90 per cent of the grocery stores in Ontario and sell 63 per cent of all the food Ontarians eat. Meanwhile, the average farm in Ontario makes less than $25,000 a year.
“Of every dollar spent on food, 20 cents goes to the farmer in a conventional grocery store. The middle people are taking all that money,” says Christianson. “In a co-operative, 60 cents of that dollar goes to the farmer.”
If you want to talk about the one per cent, Ontario’s food system is a good place to start.
The West End Food Co-op has 500 members so far, including 20 farmers. Dinner expects another 1,500 to sign up by the end of next year. (Membership costs only $5.) Until their first general meeting, there won’t be an operating plan. But, they have some basic ideas of how it will work:
The kitchen will be used as a mini processing plant for farmers’ excess product, so vegetable farmers can drop off extra bushels of tomatoes and the co-op cooks will stew them into pasta sauce, label them and sell them in the store, for example.
Twice a week, the kitchen will be used for community programming, teaching Parkdale groups how to cook and preserve. In exchange for a break in the rent, the Community Health Centre upstairs expects to hold workshops here.
The prices in the co-op will be more expensive than No Frills, to ensure the farmers make enough to remain on the farm. Since Parkdale is a poorer part of town, the co-op will distribute “co-op bucks” to its community partners, like the Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre. The Parkdale Community Health Centre plans to fundraise to buy “co-op bucks” for its clients.
The members will decide what to do with any profit the co-op makes, whether to invest in a new freezer or pay for another community program.
So far, the space still resembles a concrete bunker, yellow chalk scratches on the floor and wall the only hints at the $250,000 renovation to come.
But locals have already started shopping here: $115,000 was raised through $500 community bonds.
I don’t live in Parkdale. But I plan to join the West End Co-op and eat peach pie there every August. I love the idea of eating my values: good wages, local food, community development.
Every member of Occupy Toronto should sign up, too.
Revolutions can happen incrementally. They don’t have to light every match — some torches are already flaming.
Catherine Porter’s column usually runs Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. She can be reached at email@example.com