In 1993 the newly elected government of Belo Horizonte, the capital of Brazilian Minas Gerais state, declared that food was a right of citizenship. The new mayor, Patrus Ananias de Souza, started implementing this right by creating a council of 20 citizens of the city, including workers, business and church leaders, with an objective of creating a new food policy.
New markets with agricultural goods have been created, where local small farmers could sell their crops directly to the people. Small landowners were encouraged to create local ABC shops (“Food for a small price” in Portuguese), in which prices for several basic products coming from local producers have been regulated by the city authorities. “People’s restaurants” were opening up across the city, where no meal was more expensive than 1 Brazilian real (ca. 1,5 zloty or 40 euro cents). The plan of local authorities also included education on healthy eating and controlling the quality of the food sold in shops around Belo Horizonte. Information regarding ways of having a cheap meal has been put in public spaces, such as bus stops.
The Polish model
Such a systemic approach would be a dream come true for members of food cooperatives, for whom self-organisation for getting cheap and healthy food is a main goal. There are 10 such initiatives around Poland in cities such as Warsaw, ?ód?, Pozna?, Gda?sk, Opole, Wroc?aw or Kraków. Supply is done with different regularity, usually (and sadly) just at local markets, which guarantee access to fresh food only on a seasonal basis, while other goods are imported or produced with chemicals under greenhouses. They don’t always succeed in ignoring the middlemen of the production and distribution processes. Some efforts in connecting with local farmers producing organic food are being pursued, but it’s also hard to pass through the problem with food certification, which automatically increases prices. Another problem with having regular cooperation with local producers comes with the fact that food cooperatives are an informal structure with no hierarchy and high rotation among its members, often continuing thanks to efforts of just a few engaged people.
“The nature of a food cooperative is that it is an association open for all, an arch-enemy of all monopolies and restrictions, a truly peoples’ grouping. Having an obligation to directly buy the goods, it in essence tends to bring together all of the consumers, that is all people, and therefore to rule the whole domestic market and to organise and change the market for the needs of the people” – Edward Abramowski
Edward Abramowski was a Polish left-libertarian author on the turn of 19th and 20th century. One of his influences on modern cooperatives in Poland is a “group fund” – a sort of internal, 10% tax on shopping activity paid by each member. It is usually used for supporting local initiatives for social justice or – when needed – acts as a sort of insurance for its members. According to another cooperative author, Romuald Mielczarski, this fund was meant to be a common profit of the group that would be later invested, i.e. in infrastructure. That’s the way that in 1907 the Spo?em association in ?ód? came into life – a group comprised of smaller cooperatives.
The main challenge that Polish food cooperatives face is having access to healthy, fresh and cheap products that don’t have to be restricted just to the middle class, as is often the case with certified, organic food. One of the possibilities is direct support of food producers on a regular basis – be it financial, logistical or through working on the farm during different parts of the production process, according to the rule, that “you do not pay for food, you pay for agriculture”. Such a system of Community Supported Agriculture is based on sharing not only the crops, but also the responsibilities and risks related to potentially bad harvests. In 2011 the citizens of Sedgwick in Maine, USA decided to pass a law according to which local farmers would have the possibility of selling their crops directly, which defied state law. Months later such motions have been supported by other cities and towns in Maine – Penobscot, Blue Hill, Trenton, Hope, Plymouth, Appleton and Livermore. “We declare that we have a right to produce, process, sell, buy and consume local food, in this way supporting self-sufficiency, caring for family farms and local food traditions. The right to have a local food system is connected with our undeniable right of self-governance” – states the motion passed in Penobscot. In Poland it is the food cooperatives that should be promoting the discussion on consumer habits, and more – a civic engagement in creating agricultural and food policies.
This article was originally published in Zielone Wiadomści.