If you inquire with the Minnesota Secretary of State, you’ll learn that one person may cast one vote in one polling place. Those who disobey this law might be found guilty of ballot stuffing. Last week, however, I cast 95 votes at my local co-op with 86 of them in favor of the “Local Growers and Farmers Party.” That is, I voted with my dollars at the cash register and over 90 percent of my vote favored local growers and producers here in Minnesota and adjacent states.
In the real world, the one-voter, one-vote rule applies to the citizens of Minnesota, as well as our nation. In fact, it also governs cooperatives where each membership equals one vote during the annual election for board directors. Consequently, as an owner at Valley Natural Foods, you have an opportunity to vote in a variety of methods and multiple times all sanctioned by the co-op. In my voting session described above, 90 cents of every dollar I spent were for locally grown products including dairy, deli, meat and produce. Those same four categories comprise the four big groups of perishable consumables that drive a co-op’s locally generated revenue.
An oft-quoted fact states that for every dollar spent locally, on average 70 percent of that money remains within the local economy. The adage’s impetus is to encourage people to shop in locally-owned stores rather than corporate chains if they want to bolster their own community’s commercial stability.
There is also the obligation that stores touting the “shop locally” maxim need to “shop” locally themselves. That is, ithe store needs to stock its shelves with goods grown and produced regionally. There are over 6,400 local products from approximately 200 local vendors on the shelves of Valley Natural Foods.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines locally produced goods to be products made within the state they are sold, as well as produced within a radius of 400 miles to the store. The value of shopping locally expands exponentially when the store itself also stocks locally.
Taking this idea of local another step, the growers and farmers who provide goods to the co-op often endeavor to remain local themselves. The Valley Natural Foods fresh meat program stipulates that meat-farmers partner with local processors and feed suppliers from a tri-state area of Minnesota, Wisconsin or Iowa.
This triad of customers, merchants and producers forms a relationship that depends on mutual support and shared goals. In 2014 Cooperative Development Service published a case study and commentary by Joan Stockinger and Dave Gutknecht. It reports that the metropolitan region of Minneapolis-St. Paul is a thriving cooperative food system currently supporting an estimated 300 to 350 local farmers, food processors and other local suppliers. Shared values include promotion of local food that is healthful and organic; support for sustainable family farming; promotion of fair trade; creation of robust jobs; and advancement of cooperative values and enterprise.
A recent shopper to Valley Natural Foods states that although prices are sometimes cheaper at other [chain] stores in the area with larger selections, the money she spends at her co-op buys her something the other stores don’t offer and, because of the economics of business, what other stores can’t offer: trust.
The co-op knows where its food is grown, it knows how the food is processed, it knows personally who handled the food and because of these close relationships, is able to guarantee its products with a level of assurance that exceeds conventional grocers.
This degree of food-safety comes at a price. Stockinger explaines that co-ops like Valley Natural Foods pay the farmer a fair amount. If the cost of production is X-dollars, the co-op pays X-dollars. The farmer trusts the co-op to treat them equitably.
“It’s a fantasy that these farmers are making a ton of money. The truth is, they’re not. They are working really hard to break even and stay in business,” Stockinger maintains.
Editor of Cooperative Grocer magazine, Gutknecht is a fervent believer in the cooperative local food system. “If you’re a member-owner and value local food, this is the place to go [food co-ops]. Being a member, I’m able to concretely support a local food economy to the local producer.”
Susan Budig, also known as The Mindful Poet, writes as a
music journalist, feature writer and news journalist for local
newspapers in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her poetry appears
in “Writers Digest;” “Music & Vision;” “Classical Poets;”
Thirteen Blackbirds Poetry blog; Art & Earth arts blog, and
“Friends of the Arts” newsletter. Find her poetry on her blog