Debs' North American "food co-operatives and more" research trip

Debs at Unicorn

I’ve been working in the world of sustainable food for over ten years, as a worker-member of Unicorn Grocery (Manchester’s wholefood grocery co-operative), as a volunteer, director and comms worker at Kindling, and as a founder member of Abundance Manchester as well as various other community food initiatives and campaigns.

Without really designing it this way, working for a more sustainable and fairer food and farming system has ended up being my means of trying to challenge, in a small way, some of the social and ecological injustices I see around me. There is something very tangible about food and the practical nature of what both Unicorn and Kindling do that means even if the bigger picture is pretty depressing, I can focus being part of real-life working examples of different and better ways of doing things, right through from growing to selling.

I’m also a big fan of travel, and several years ago started to dream about combining these passions through a trip to the USA and Canada to see what I could learn from the progressive food movement there, and co-ops in particular.

Four years later, and thanks to a grant from the fantastic Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and the support of Unicorn and Kindling, I’m lucky enough to be making this trip a reality.

Starting in late August 2015, I’ll be travelling through thirteen states and visiting nearly thirty organisations, including food co-ops (both worker and consumer owned), organic farms (urban and rural), food access projects, food hubs and more to see what I can bring back to inspire and inform the pathways of both Unicorn and Kindling over the next five years. 

Both Unicorn and Kindling are really embedded in the world of co-operatives and community enterprise and the sustainable food sector in the UK, and put a lot of time and effort into sharing experience and ideas with others. Kindling has also benefited hugely from connecting with like-minded organisations on the continent and in Australia, and our FarmStart initiative was born out of the experiences of the original FarmStarts in the USA and Canada.

The culture of food co-operatives is really strong in the USA, where it’s consumer-owned co-ops that are the norm. Hearing that they turnover a combined $2.5 billion annually and represent almost 1.5 million consumer-owners, you might start picturing something like the UK’s Co-op chain. But unlike the mergers over the years of most of our small local co-operative societies to eventually form The Co-op, most grocery co-ops Stateside have remained independent, allowing members to retain very direct democratic control and giving each store a completely unique character. You won’t find Mars Bars in these co-ops either, most having emerged from 60’s and 70’s counter-culture, they set up to trade almost exclusively in affordable wholefoods, organics and local produce. Their commitment to health, environmental and social issues is still very visible in the way they choose to distribute their profits, build their stores, and support their producers. They are also enormously active in their communities, often acting as hubs for social, cultural and campaigning activities. I can’t wait to find out more.

I'll also be visiting worker co-op groceries that, like Unicorn, have grown from small beginnings to establish themselves at the heart of their communities and now provide well-sourced food (and much more) to thousands of local customers. Some, like the Arizmendi Association of Co-operative Bakeries, offer interesting models for expanding the co-operative model without any single co-op having to get too large, a particular point of interest for Unicorn just now.

And as well as co-ops, I’ll be visiting other innovative food and farming initiatives, like Mandela Marketplace in Oakland, California - a non-profit organization that works with local residents, family farmers, and community-based businesses to improve health, create wealth, and build assets through co-operative food enterprises in low-income communities. And finally, I’ll be spending time on two organic farms, an orchard in Montana and a mixed farm in New York state, which is connected to Kindling friends The Greenhorns.

I have various research aims for my trip, which I’ll be exploring in more detail in later posts, but I’m also aware that I'm likely to learn loads of things I’ve not even thought about as well. I look forward to sharing them here!


The Kindling Trust is a not for profit social enterprise with charitable aims (Company number: 6136029).
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