Friday, July 20, 2012

Running a CSA Pickup, My COOP Experience in General, and Power in Food

A couple weeks ago I "ran" the CSA pickup at Edible Alchemy because the ever vigilant Andrea and Dietrich were off catering an amazing weekend long yoga retreat.  I put ran in quotation marks because Edible Alchemy is truly a cooperative and my role was far less fearless leader than I imagine it would be in almost any other situation.  Once the experience was finished I collapsed for the remainder of the day.  It was a fulfilling, awesome, exhausting experience.  It was also a very thought provoking experience.

My work with Edible Alchemy is my first real experience with cooperatives.  I mean I was a member of Bloomingfoods when I lived in B-town, but let's be honest that's barely a coop anymore.  It's a retail food establishment who's governance structures are legally coop, but it's run like a Whole Foods.  I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but it's not really a coop in the deepest sense of the term.

So my experience with Edible Alchemy, especially my brief experience in the closest thing to a leadership role that I think I'll see in a true small cooperative made me realize a few things.  The first is that we can all make the individual choice to take back the power that's been "taken from us" in our society.  I put taken from us in quotes because I don't actually think it has been taken from us.  A path to affluence has been laid out for us.  It involves high school, then college, lots of extra curricular activities, marriage, credit cards, a house, cable TV, a new car, and several other trappings of affluence.  That path is a lie, and it always has been.  The thing is, we choose to believe it.  No one forces us down that path at gunpoint, and I've known a few awesome people who chose to leave that path, or at least take a tangentially related path.  In almost all cases they have lived the better life for it.

When you walk into ECO, the physical coop that hosts Edible Alchemy you'll see . . . well basically no signs of affluence as defined by the above path.  There's an upcycle station filled with packaging that was used to bring food to sale previously at more traditional grocery establishments, and a communal kitchen with a host of wondrous mis matched hand me down kitchen tools.  There's a roof top garden that is bountiful, but rather messy around the edges . . . and in the middle of the beds as well.  To be honest that's how I like it.  There are a few weeds, and a ton of excellent food, and patches of different plants all over.  It's chaotic, and random, but bountiful.  The way work gets done at EA is that everyone chips in, in different dynamic sort of ways.  Everything is run through a volunteer sign up sheet, and the food is based on a direct relationship with farmers, bakers, coffee roasters etc.  These relationships are often built on conversations and handshakes, though once things scale up a formal ordering process is eventually needed, but really it all stays pretty informal by any other business standard.

Similarly when you go into the part of ECO where people live there isn't cable, there's no AC, there aren't big stereo systems and lots of conveniences.  The people who live in ECO very obviously do for themselves. This all seems very simple, but it all requires something that is vitally necessary to our society.  A sense of both connection and independence.  My experience growing up in America is that we have lost much of our connection to each other, and to our ability to take care of ourselves.  We pride ourselves on our independence, and use it as the justification for not having things like socialized health care, or stronger socialized education, yet at the same time we are not independent.  We no longer know how to cook as a society, we don't know how to build our own furniture, or make our own clothes, or brew our own drinks.  We instead depend on the supply chain.  So we are involuntarily connected to a system we have no real control over, while being disconnected from each other.  It is the ultimate irony of our age, and our society.

My time working at ECO has shown me more than anything else that we don't have to exist in this state.  There is no law requiring us to invest in this supply chain as profoundly as we do.  The greatest hope I see for breaking out of this cycle is the internet.  It gives us the opportunity to find people of like minds, to reconnect, and to access a bounty of information that can be used to learn and become truly independent.  There are people all over the country doing this already.  There are coops in every city, and people cooking, sewing, brewing, building, and making for themselves.  While my personal passion is cooking this is an issue that goes well beyond food.  Take a look at for how it manifests in technology.

While the reconnecting with our ability to take care of ourselves, and separation from the supply chain is important in all aspects of life I honestly feel it is more important with food than any other.  Food is essential to keep us alive.  When agrobusiness decides they want to push roundUP ready crops to make a buck if we are dependent on the supply chain we will eat them, whether they were put in place because they are healthy or because they are profitable.  When the corn industry leverages it's weight and gets high fructose corn syrup in everything, if we cannot cook for ourselves we will eat the corn syrup because we have to eat.  The examples go on and on and on.  Grain fed beef, pink slime, hormonally unbalanced portions of soy even in our meat, sugar as a flavor supplement to make low fat food palatable even when sugar adds more pounds than fat. etc. etc. etc.

A lot of people are very mad about all the things I listed above, and they talk about our food system as something which needs to be fixed, and it does need to be fixed.  A lot of people also talk about how we need to make food for themselves so we can take control of our nutrition, and we do.  At the heart of the problem though isn't our dependency on the food system, it's our dependency on the supply chain as a whole.  Having the option to trade off convenience for money occasionally is a wonderful luxury and one of the best things about modern life.  I don't know anyone, no matter how "do it yourself" who doesn't occasionally order a pizza.  However, when it's your only option then too much power is given to the people who run the system.  It's power we freely give to them, and it is important to remember that they are not inherently bad people, but the people who run our systems are PEOPLE.  My mother used to say that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  It's not her saying, but it was one of her favorite quotes.  We give power to the systems which abuse us by making us dependent on them.  Many have been ground down so far that they don't have to resources to remove themselves from the system, but there are many more who could choose to do for themselves but do not.  It's important to understand what that choice represents, because I believe that when one understands what that choice represents it becomes much easier to make a different choice.