When I was little, I spent my summers in the rural Russian village of Staraya Racheika, where my grandparents used to live. They’d never been farmers, but they still owned a dozen chickens and grew fruits and vegetables in their garden, just like millions of other residents of Russian villages.
People had to be self-reliant in the way they lived, because the nearest market was too far away to reach by foot. So they continued watering tomatoes and protecting baby chicks from the rain to later exchange eggs for the milk from the neighbor’s cow, tomatoes for the cheese and so on. My grandparents’ farming practices fueled their lives.
City kid as I was, I remember picking at the ugly, unusually small strawberries and reminiscing over the beautiful, perfectly ripe store-bought kind my mother and I usually had at home in Moscow.
I’d ask her about the difference, and she’d say, “Bugs will only eat organic strawberries.”
Back then, I didn’t know much about pesticides, industrial food production and labor laws. Yet, I always respected the work my grandparents did as I watched them dig in the soil from dawn to dusk, bent over and tired, day after day in the hot sun.
Only years later did I realize that these were the people who never sold their produce, because they were only trying to feed themselves. That’s how my appreciation was born for modern farmers—the people who manage to feed thousands—and I wanted to help them.
I believe in spending my money on things that align with my values.
When I buy groceries, I always trace the journey that a food item traveled and ask myself these questions:
Is it sustainable?
How many miles did it have to travel to reach my table?
Was it produced using fair economic practices?
How much did the farmers earn and how were they treated?
These questions and the potential answers are responsible for the future of our food system, farmers’ lives, the condition of our soil and waterways, and our health. I have found that the best way to buy responsibly is to shop at grocery co-ops.
Food co-ops are democratically-structured grocery stores owned by members instead of corporations.
When we buy groceries at conventional supermarkets, the money is taken out of our communities and put into the hands of stockholders and private owners, with a tiny amount paid to the farmers for their labor.
Co-ops don’t exist to make a profit like supermarkets do. Any extra money is either shared among members—which is good, considering that any customer can become one—or re-invested into the co-op, therefore creating jobs in the area.
Because co-ops don’t have to pay CEOs or investors to run their affairs, they sell produce at a lower margin than conventional grocery stores. One can become a member for an average of 25 dollars per year and get 10 percent off on every purchase once a month, and enjoy product-specific discounts and other benefits. A co-op share—or membership—also comes with the right to vote for the organization’s leaders, board members and strategic initiatives.
According to National Cooperative Grocers Association’s The Economic Impact of Co-ops, for every 1,000 dollars that a shopper spends at a cooperative, 1,604 is generated in the local economy. When the same amount of money is spent at a supermarket, only 1,365 dollars flow back into the economy, with the big bucks going to the CEOs. The average cooperative earning 10 million dollars a year in revenue provides employment for more than 90 workers because of the number of local farmers who work with each store. A conventional grocer, however, signs contracts with huge factory farms and other monopolistic producers that rely on machinery instead of actual farmers. There, big money gets pushed to the top instead of being fairly distributed among actual growers.
Ever since the U.S. government started subsidizing food production during the Great Depression, the farmer’s share has been too small to survive, let alone participate in sustainable and socially responsible agriculture. (Read The Impossible Case of Sonny Nguyen to find out more about the corporate abuse of farmers.) The retail price of bread in 1990 was 72 cents, but the cost of all farm products in that loaf was valued at four cents.
While robbing farmers of their rightfully-earned money, government price controls didn’t extend to distributors 26 years ago, nor do they now. Food processors still buy the artificially low-priced raw commodities from farmers and sell the processed product to consumers for whatever price they wish.
Although the taxpayers’ subsidies to farmers are designed to provide cheap food to consumers, all they do is subsidize large food conglomerates.
That’s also why our present industrial food production system is heavily dependent on oil for transportation and on chemical fertilizers that are depleting our soil. At a typical co-op, 82 percent of produce sales come from USDA-certified organic items, with no harmful pesticides polluting the environment. Meanwhile, this number is only 12 percent at a conventional store. Moreover, because an average co-op spends more money investing into local produce than a supermarket does, oil consumption required for transportation decreases.
Bonus points: According to NCGA, co-ops give nine percent more to charity, recycle 52 percent more plastics and compost 38 percent more food waste than do supermarkets.
Conventional grocery stores suck money out of consumers, farmers and local communities. They suck oil from the ground and fertility out of our soil. They even suck at recycling. While it’s difficult to change this politically, we can affect the current system now by leaving it. Weekly visits to local, member-owned grocery stores (a.k.a. co-ops) allow us to put 100 percent of our money into growers’ hands, therefore supporting what we believe in.
I’m still a kid affected by the bittersweet memories of my childhood, when the tomatoes I watched my grandparents plant were the ones that made it to my table every summer. I want to give power to the farmers because I value sustainability and social responsibility, and because I support fair economic practices and the creation of jobs in my community.
If you want to vote with your buck, too, please visit the list of co-ops in your area.
Author: Anna Sorokina
Editor: Toby Israel
Image: Author’s Own // Pexels