On the Death of a Co-Op and the Persistence of the Spirit

*Today’s piece is a guest blog from a friend I met at seminary named Jack Rowan. Jack is a sharp, spiritually sensitive, and socially aware individual. He happens to be from Montana and for awhile I called him “Montana Mike”–fully aware that his name was not Mike but sometimes forgetting his actual name because I associated him with that fine state. I’m aware that “rural” means many things in many places and I write primarily from a knowledge of the rural Midwest and South. So, I have tried to expand the scope of the blog by including voices from folks engaging rural America in other regions. Jack is such a person. I hope you benefit from his excellent, authentic, and searching story. 

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Jack/”Montana Mike”

Gracious God, I lay down my work.
And in doing so,
I lay at your feet
the faces I have seen,
the voices I have heard,
the words I have spoken,
the hands I have shaken,
the food I have offered,
the service I have given,
the joys I have shared,
the sorrows revealed.
I lay them all at your feet.
And in doing so, I ask
What now would you have me do?

Recently the members of a small co-operative grocery store in Missoula, Montana decided it was time to cease operations and sell off all the assets that could be sold. A 10-year project intended to transform local food systems—by increasing nutritional access within one of Missoula’s lowest-income neighborhoods, providing a year-round outlet for local growers, and promoting democracy in how people make food choices—reached a disappointing end. A friend told me she struggled to hold in bitter tears as she voted to close the store. She was not vexed by the closing itself. She knew it was inevitable. The tears came because she hated having to take part in making this decision. Maybe – maybe – it would have been better if someone had just stolen it away. I listened and offered unhelpful acknowledgements, but I didn’t feel any tears. I had been part of this co-operative project for 12 years, well before we staged our first official organizing meeting. I served on the exploratory committee. I logged an ocean of hours

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The Co-op at work

building shelving units, fixing equipment, organizing work parties, meeting with lenders and city officials, building partnerships, staffing the store, and promoting the co-op to anybody who would listen – and at least a few hundred people who tried hard not to listen. It seemed like I should have been leaking tears, if not wailing. I was pre-occupied thinking how else we might continue pursuing our goal to realize abundance in the midst of food insecurity.

I lay down my work.
And in doing so,
I lay at your feet …

Why are we struggling with food insecurity? Montana is an agrarian state. Nearly 40% of the statewide economy is directly attributed to agricultural production. Missoula is colloquially known as the “Garden City.” Yet 16% of the people in Missoula County call upon local food banks to supplement their needs.ii Nearly 13% rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as “food stamps”) and almost 43% of county households qualify for free or reduced-rate school lunch programs.iii The incongruous reality of people struggling to secure enough to eat despite being literally surrounded by food production is not unique to Missoula, MT. Similar statistics are reported in rural communities across the United States. Every year our nation generates a massive surplus of products suitable for human consumption, yet we are only marginally successful in making high quality foods accessible to those who struggle to afford it. The USDA has published evidence people participating in publicly-funded assistance programs have better access to high quality foods than in the recent
past and there are indications many are making healthier choices. But the reality remains our food systems continue to make it easier for people in need to access highly-processed, nutritionally vacuous, and disease inducing crud. Doritos are cheaper, more prevalent, and easier to access (no refrigeration, cooking, or problems storing for long periods) than fresh corn– even when the corn is grown within a mile of the recipient’s home. This is a reality in our time and in our communities; but I’m not interested in writing a polemic about commercial, industrial food production. I hold no illusion yet another cry for food justice will change a destructive system. Our problems generate from many sources and the blame can be spread quite widely.

… the food I have offered,
the service I have given,
the joys I have shared,
the sorrows revealed…

This blog is about recovering abundance and the work we can do to realize that intention. Ten years ago a large group of people in Missoula, Montana launched a project with the intention to recovery the abundance of healthy food, of stronger local economies, and of local, person-to-person democratic action. I’ve already revealed that project did not succeed as intended. Our food co-operative is now shuttered. And, much like the national food system, the sources of our struggles were many. Maybe a few years from now I might feel prepared to write a post-mortem on the Missoula Food Co-operative but right now I’m still too busy seeking ways to keep key elements of the project active. The doors to the Co-op are closed but the spirit that created it remains very much open.

Jack Garden City Harvest
Garden City Harvest

Several years ago we partnered with two local non-profit organizations and one of the local farmer’s markets to launch a program we call “Double SNAP Dollars.” SNAP is Federally-funded and State-administered to provide money specifically for food purchases and is distributed directly to folks with low- to moderate-income levels. Through our Double SNAP program food outlets (formerly the Co-op and continuing with the farmer’s market) match, dollar-for-dollar, the amount SNAP recipients spend on produce and bulk foods at their markets. As an example, a SNAP participant can purchase $20 worth of produce and bulk goods but only $10 comes out of the person’s SNAP account. The markets are reimbursed from a fund we continually regenerate through a small grant from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and donations
from generous Missoula community members. The USDA agreed to this grant because the program operates through markets primarily supplied by local food producers (Montana farmers and ranchers) who benefit from expanded and stabilized outlets for their products as well as minor packaging and distribution costs. Our record tracking demonstrates the Double SNAP Dollars program has succeeded in creating an incentive for SNAP recipients to purchase local, fresh, healthy produce and bulk foods and local producers are eager to continue participating. Actually, a few local food producers have realized a special bonus from the incentive program because a disturbingly high number of them qualify for SNAP benefits. Despite our success the program now faces a major challenge. The Co-op’s participation has been particularly critical because it was open 7 days/week, 52 weeks/year (whereas the farmer’s market is open one day/week, seasonally). The program is about to undergo a significant transformation and every option presents new challenges as well as opportunities.

… I lay them all at your feet.
And in doing so, I ask
What now would you have me do?

A core group of community organizers is working to secure a new market partner (maybe even partners) for the Double SNAP Dollar program. However, committing to look for new partners is quite different than establishing a viable relationship that works for everyone involved. In general, traditional grocery stores are not eager to commit to local growers as their primary supplier for produce and bulk goods because these stores have existing contracts with national distributors and the stores seek to satisfy year-round demand for products which some local producers can’t provide. Additionally, working with a traditional and larger grocery store could dramatically expand the population of SNAP beneficiaries able to take part in the Double SNAP Dollars program. This means those of us organizing the program would need to dramatically grow the matching fund pool to meet the expanded demand. I do not wish we had easy answers to the challenges we face because easy answers most often generate from cheap
questions. Recovering abundance is a complicated endeavor and some failed efforts are
inherent to the process. But recovering abundance is not defined by winning. It is defined by the spirit that rejoices in the truth, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Recovering abundance requires us to ask, in the midst of successes or failures, gracious God, “What now would you have me do?”

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