Web Note: Robin Seydel is the membership director for the La Montanita Food Coops in New Mexico. She is a also a member of the Board of Directors of the Organic Consumers Association
It's heartening to see the buy local movement gaining ground. With the ills of globalization hitting home and the current national emphasis on "homeland security" even those who previously ignored or denigrated early buy local initiatives, city, state and national officials, supporters of "free" trade/globalization, media pundits on all sides of the political spectrum and even large corporations are jumping on the buy local bandwagon. While for many buying local is just the new "in" business thing, used to further an image and help increase or ensure profit margin, for others buy local initiatives are seen as a solution to some of the societal challenges we face.
FOOD: Buy Local Poster Child
Since we all need sustenance to survive; who gets to eat, what we eat, where it comes from, how it is produced, how much it costs, who controls the food supply and who profits can be seen as some of our most charged political
issues. It is not surprising then that food has become one of the most clearly articulated poster children for why by local. The standard why buy local motivations all apply here.
In terms of the personal benefits, locally produced food gives you the exceptional taste of freshness and better nutritional value for your dollars. It also helps safeguard the quality of the food itself giving you the opportunity to know who produced your food, on what farm, in what way (a sustainable manner, pesticide/herbicide free, with or without sewer sludge, GMO's, irradiation, confinement of animals, hormone, antibiotic or animal by-product laced feed or other conventional agricultural practices and technologies of concern) and to choose accordingly. No pre-ripe harvest, no wax or other preservatives, no 1500 to 3,000 to 7,000 (for seafaring beef and out of season tropical fruit) refrigerated food miles traveled. In these times of oil depletion awareness and global climate change, the energy saved and pollutants avoided alone, are enough to make any conscious person almost giddy with glee.
On the community based level, you have strengthened the local economy by keeping more of your hard earned money circulating in the local community, for a longer time. And except in the case of large factory farms (should they happen to be in your locality) you have helped keep small family farmers on the land, providing stewardship of resources, wildlife habitat and strengthened the fabric of rural and semi-urban economies. All excellent outcomes of buy local initiatives. Additionally you have participated in the soul nourishing benefits of the interpersonal relationships your activities have fostered, by very definition the bedrock of community building.
Building Buy Local Initiative
In 1976 a group of 300 families in Albuquerque, NM pooled their resources to bring trucks carrying organic and natural foods to their neighborhood. At that time, things we now take for granted, like brown rice, non-hydrogenated peanut butter and organic carrots were not available in their University District community. Over the past 30 years, from La Montanita Co-op's original little storefront in the Girard Street Community Center, the cooperative they birthed has grown into one of the nation's largest consumer-owned cooperative networks, serving approximately 12,000 member-owners at neighborhood stores in two Albuquerque communities, in Santa Fe and in Gallup.
This same thirty year period saw over five hundred local cooperative food stores close their doors. What began with a handful of dedicated pioneers and small family farmers rapidly became an "industry." Fueled by increasing awareness of the health and environmental costs of conventional agri-business, the double digit growth in what was originally perceived as a "niche" market (the only real growth in the grocery industry), was not lost on corporate giants who wanted a piece of the multi-billion dollar organic and natural foods pie. Corporate buy-outs and natural foods corporate chains selling lifestyle image quickly defined the highly competitive environment that is today¹s natural food marketplace.
One of the things that allowed La Montanita Co-op not only survive in this increasingly competitive environment, but to thrive (beyond some dedicated long term staff, savvy business management practices, food education, community activism programs and plain old dumb luck) was an active program to encourage local farmers. Even twenty years ago it was nearly impossible to find locally grown produce or other locally produced items. The Co-op set about cultivating producers by recognizing the true costs of local, unsubsidized production, paying fair price for locally produced goods, paying farmers and producers immediately often right out of the cash register as they brought their products to the store (no waiting 30, 60 or 90 days for payment like with the big corporate chains), using reduced mark-ups on local items, sponsoring local farming conferences and educational activities to encourage more people to plant, harvest and create value added products, informing growers of what was needed so they could plant accordingly("we had plenty of tomatoes last year but no onions"), supporting the formation and growth of growers markets, providing articles and free advertising in our publications and stores, hosting community events and harvest festivals to give growers opportunity to sell their wares at retail prices to name a few related activities.
Values Added: Cooperative Economics
Over the decades the Co-op's commitment to locally produced food is has become legendary with many small local producers' saying that the bulk of their income is made at the Co-op. To see how much the Co-op actually buys from local producers and how much that amount can be increased, over the past few years La Montanita has begun a tracking system that is coupled with an active advertising program (articles in the Coop newspaper and ads in other local media outlets) and a "Buy Local" signage program on store shelves.
In 2002-16% of all Co-op purchases were of local products, in 2003-- 18%, in 2004-- 20%. (as of this writing figures are not yet complete for 2005). These percentages represent millions of dollars of support for the local economy. Given current purchase rates and with the added volume of the expanded cooperative network, including stores in Santa Fe and Gallup communities, the Co-op expects to purchase more than 2.5 million dollars from local producers in 2006.
Currently purchasing over 1500 items from over 400 local producers, it is the Co-op's goal to continually increase the amount of food sourced from local growers and producers. The Co-op has committed a substantial amount of resources to this effort in its 2005-2006 fiscal year budget. Over the past few years due to the difficulties local producers face both economically (making ends meet) and environmentally (droughts/water shortages, Curley top virus, bee mites and more) some local producers have been lost. The Co-op has extended loans to several local growers, including helping the new regional eco-label, Beneficial Farms get up and running.
But in the end, conceivably, the most important thing the Co-op does to support buy local initiatives is not the amount of local products it purchases. Nor is it the amount of money that re-circulates back into the community from those purchases (by some estimates multipliers as high can 6 can be applied before those dollars leak away), but the model the Co-op represents as it does these things.
Integrated within that model are a set of ethical values and principles, including equality, democracy, autonomy, equity, honesty, social and self-responsibility, caring for others, cooperation among co-ops (especially important as the arid/semi arid southwest can not expect to produce all the food we need to survive here) and concern for sustainable community. It is these values that move the cooperative economic system beyond profit driven, business as usual conventions. As wealth and power become increasingly concentrated in the hands of an ever-tightening circle of corporations, the consumer, and by extension community ownership, of resources and inherent economic democracy that the cooperative business model represents is perhaps the most inspiring aspect of La Montanita Co-op's buy local initiatives.
Buy Local At Your Community-owned Co-op La Montanita Coop Nob Hill Location, 3500 Central Ave S.E. Albuquerque, New Mexico 87106, 505-265-4631 Valley Location, 2400 Rio Grande Blvd, N.W. Albuquerque, New Mexico 87107 505-242-8800 Santa Fe Location, 913 West Alameda, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501, 505-9842852 Gallup Location, 105East Coal Ave, Gallup New Mexico 87301 505-863-5383
Or Check them out on the web at www.lamontanitacoop.com <http://www.lamontanitacoop.com/ This article first appeared in the Southwest Research and Information Center's quarterly publication Voices From the Earth, Fall 2005-Vol. 6, No.3