How the Cooperative Food Movement Is Evolving | Civil Eats

How the Cooperative Food Movement Is Evolving

The COFED 2019 Summer Co-op Academy cohort. (Photo courtesy of COFED)

Cooperatives are taking shape and growing in all parts of the food system. And yet, their founders are swimming upstream in an environment shaped by hierarchical business models. For this reason, learning how to run a successful co-op requires time, patience, and a team that’s willing to go the distance. It also works best when you have adequate support from those with experience working cooperatively.

Suparna Kudesia, executive director and co-leader of Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive, or CoFED, works with a team of people who offer just that kind of support. She joined the organization in 2018 as the director of education and became the executive director in 2020. We spoke with Kudesia about what’s at stake and what’s ahead for the cooperative movement, as well the work CoFED is doing to build a more just food system.

CoFED started as a network for student-led food co-ops in 2011. How has it changed and what is the organization up to now?

In 2016, after Trump came to power, there was huge momentum all over the food justice movement in more traditional spaces, which is where CoFED was sitting, and people were asking, “How do we really radicalize our work and really walk our talk?” And so we started shifting our focus and thinking about: What does it mean to actually transform the food system and look at the root causes of its problems at a systemic level? [The leaders at the time] were realizing that there’s food apartheid in the U.S., that capital and resources move around the country disproportionately, that access to land is still disproportionate for Black and Indigenous people, and the whole food system is based on the legacy of enslavement and genocide as well as the theft of land and labor and stolen wealth. And so, what does it mean to transform the food system, while also realizing that the foundation is rooted in colonial genocidal racialized capitalism?

We began looking at work all across what we call the “horizontal food axis”—all the places on the supply chain, from land stewardship and farm work all the way through food production, seed distribution, and composting to food creation and distribution to restaurant work and catering—and at this point, we basically work with all of them. In 2018, we realized there are lots of cooperative spaces in the community that really needed the support we were providing but they were not able to get it through formalized educational spaces. We decided to expand our mission, but we still focus on working with youth aged 18 to 30. And we focus on cooperatives led by people who identify as queer, trans, and nonbinary, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, as well as poor and working-class folks, folks with disabilities, caregivers, and immigrants. People who have historically experienced food apartheid and currently are experiencing it, but are working in their communities to really approach cooperative work through an asset-based approach.

Can you say a little bit more about how you work with cooperatives? What are some of the challenges that those folks see getting co-ops off the ground?

CoFED is involved with the notion of starting and scaling up co-ops, so we work with co-ops at every level. And what we’ve really realized is beyond being a co-op developer, what we really have a niche in is specifically working with collectives who are interested in saying, “We want to start a co-op and we don’t know how.” The cooperative movement and cooperative ways of working have really long history among communities of color, and among queer and trans communities, who basically have a very different, non-individualistic, collective way of moving through work and life.

We see groups coming to us and saying, “We have this idea, this dream, but we don’t know how to make it happen from A to Z.” So, we get groups who are at that nascent, beginning level. And then we get groups who are also saying, “We’ve been a co-op for the last five years, now we want to refine or really sharpen our bylaws,” or what we call “OMG”—the organizational, management, and governance structures of our cooperative. Or sometimes they come to us and say, “We’ve been experiencing this repeated conflict and [we don’t know] how to exist within late-stage, racialized capitalism. We would like some training around radical accountability and moving through this with principles of transformative justice or abolitionism.” And then we work in collaboration with these co-ops. We’re not there because we know more. We’re there because we are all in collaboration and we’re all complicit in being really able to transform this food economy.

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Can you share some examples of the recent groups you have supported?

One great example is Heal With the Land. It is led by two people who attended our flagship education program, Build, Unlearn, Decolonize (BUD). They’re working to acquire land in the South, to be able to build a nature sanctuary focused on land stewardship, art, and healing space for BIPOC LGBTQIA+ folks. Ka Hale Mahiku is another example. They are a small ohana, or family farm, based in East Maui. They’re connecting farming, and then also doing a lot of housing justice and land justice work in a part of Hawaii where there is so much food apartheid and food insecurity. Catatumbo Cooperative Farms is a cooperative urban farm based in Chicago. One of its founders, Jasmine Martinez, was a racial justice fellow at CoFED in 2018 and they started Catatumbo as part of that CoFED project. [In addition to farming], they’re doing educational work that brings out and amplifies ancestral wisdom around food production, and they are guided by what it really means to be a worker-owned and -led co-op.

You mentioned horizontal food access. Cooperative food distribution and retail, cooperative farms, and cooperative restaurants have all become commonplace. What else are you seeing?

There are urban gardening co-ops, there are educational co-ops that combine working with young children and educating them about food and food justice. There are compost co-ops working toward a just transition in the face of climate change. There are also medicinal marijuana co-ops that are growing around the country right now. And there are a number of other kinds of healing-based co-ops. In the past, we worked with the Black and Brown Worker Cooperative. They’re based in Philly and do reiki and energy healing work and doula work. And so it’s not directly food justice, but to us, it is connected because if we want to grow the cooperative food movement, we have to build the larger cooperative movement.

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What do you think is at stake when you’re talking about the rise of the co-op movement?

What’s at stake is our collective future. I’m a parent and a caregiver to young people who are going to inherit this planet. And the extractive, unjust, transactional, non-regenerative, violent colonial economic system that is responsible for producing and distributing food—and managing our food waste—is not sustainable. What the cooperative movement is doing is offering a viable and historically proven alternative to [changing the system] and to being in relationship with each other in our labor, as well as with the land.

What are your hopes for the future of the movement?

I have a dream space, and I know I’m not the only one who is dreaming like this, but I hope for the co-op movement to be able to realize what a phoenix it is: It’s not just something that’s coming out of the ashes of capitalism, but it is its own being that is vibrant, beautiful, capable, and worthy of growth and of its own destiny and determined paths. I hope for the cooperative movement to be the main way in which we design our lives and the way we think about healthcare, education, food, land, recreation, and joy, as well as culture and organizing work. [People in] all of those spaces can learn a lot and move much more sustainably in their own capacity, but also in the world if they can embody more cooperative principles.

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Twilight Greenaway is Civil Eats' senior editor and former managing editor. Her articles about food and farming have appeared in The New York Times, NPR.org, The Guardian, Food and Wine, Gastronomica, and Grist, among other. See more at TwilightGreenaway.com. Follow her on Twitter. Read more >

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