2012 is the UN’s International Year of Cooperatives
I’ve been involved in the food coop movement (http://www.go.coop ) since the late 70s when I was a young freelancer writer and joined the 16th St. Food Coop in the Midwood section of Brooklyn (now evolved into the Flatbush Food Coop in Ditmas Park), beginning the long love affair with organic food that replaced my earlier addiction to fast food, caffeine and sugar.
In mid-June I attended the Consumer Cooperative Management Association conference in San Diego (http://www.ccma.coop/) where keynote speeches showed the daunting challenges ahead and also the worldwide support for the cooperative movement today with its message of wellness and community support. The opening keynoter, Mari Gallagher, heads up a Chicago consulting group that has drawn national acclaim for its pioneering research on food deserts, demonstrating that the nutritional quality of the food people eat is often related to where they live (http://www.marigallagher.com ). She describes a food desert as any area where healthy, affordable food is difficult to obtain. Large sectors of the population in most American cities, including her hometown of Chicago, are serviced primarily by party stores, according to Gallaher’s studies. And she warned that with so much corn sugar in our processed food, sugar is becoming the new street drug. It was sad to be reminded that so much of our country has no easy access to healthy food while even the middle class often prefers the ease of fast food to preparing meals at home. Gallagher felt food coops were well positioned to work with farmers and legislators on finding solutions.
The good news as a spur to creating change is that the National Cooperative Business Association (www.ncba.coop ) is taking the lead in promoting the 2012 International Year of the Cooperative declared by the United Nations. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “Cooperatives are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility.” In the case of food coops, the mission focuses on educating their members and the public on organic foods and promoting the wellness of the community. It felt good to concentrate for a few days on how to make the world a better, healthier place.
As the food conference came to a close in San Diego, I was reminded again of the urgency of finding ways to solve the world’s imbalances in food and other resources – and in general sowing world friendship — when the local news announced that the ship involved in the mission to find Osama Bin Laden had just pulled into port that day. Many Navy Seals are trained here.
If you want to learn more about the UN’s International Year of the Cooperatives, including events planned throughout the year, go to http://social.un.org/coopsyear/
Back when I was a struggling freelance writer in my 20s, I moved into the Midwood area of Brooklyn where a budding new food coop had just opened a storefront. In those days, I was single and still emulating the lifestyle of my hard-drinking journalist friends. Amazingly, as I got involved in the 16th Street Food Coop, I found my new friends had me eating organic foods and drinking water and juices, not beer and tequila. That struggling little coop is now relocated as The Flatbush Food Coop on Cortelyou Road in Ditmas Park and has become a multi-million dollar enterprise. After years away pursuing my career on the west coast, I recently returned after the death of my husband and was reminded again of how much its values on community and organic living have shaped my life and this time helped me heal from the loss of my beloved partner. As I read about how Congress is taking a hard look at a medical coop in Seattle as a compromise model for a new healthcare system, I am not surprised. Coops are often mightiest in hard times.
The coop in the news is Group Health and its president Scott Armstrong told the New York Times “There’s a kind of accountability to the patients in our system. And when you bring the principles of a cooperative to bear, patients feel responsibility for holding the system together and for their own health.” I would add that the sense of responsibility he speaks about results from the fact that co-op members actually own an equal share of the business.
In fact, Paul Hazen, President and CEO of the National Cooperative Business Association wrote recently that it’s time to remember that cooperatives thrived in the great depression. Cooperative credit unions, for instance, founded back in the 30s, are remaining stable in this uncertain economy. Remember the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life?” It’s not just about the spirit of sharing during the holidays – the battle between the values of a small Savings & Loan (not a coop, but a family-run business) dedicated to its customers pitted against a runaway Bank culture (yes, there are great global banks) focused only on the bottom line, resonates in today’s economy.
Even if national healthcare eventually ends up as a government plan, I’m glad the spotlight right now is on cooperatives. We need to help each other get through today’s hard times and cooperatives offer us a way to get started on that journey!