A New Food Manifesto

Have a stake in the local food dynamic by owning a piece of the action.Our state is well studded with beautiful supermarkets. They are simply gorgeous, chock full of colorful fruits and vegetables, meats glowing red under special lights and row after row of boxes of dry goods. Surely the envy of our grandmothers. A pretty picture, yes? Definitely no, say pockets of concerned consumers across the state.The problems are deeply rooted in our conventional eating and buying routines. Run to the grocery and pick up some fruit, maybe a head of lettuce, grab some hamburger and then head for the inside aisles for ready-made, ready-to-make, over-processed food. Veronica Kamerman, organizer of the newly formed planning committee for the Manchester Food Co-op, says, “Take out the products with excess sugar, salt and white flour and the middle aisles would be empty.” It’s that bad? “It’s that bad. Nutrition quality has gone down precipitously over the past 30 years. Look at pictures of people during WWII. The women and children were trim. Sugar and flour were rationed and it turned out to be a health benefit.”Kamerman and her counterpart in the Monadnock Region, Bonnie Hudspeth, want to turn the tables, educate the public and offer sustainable, healthy food options to the public. They both feel the food co-op model is the answer. With a mandate to offer healthier choices you are solving several problems at once. Local produce and proteins such as dairy, eggs and meats of all types can be offered year-round, encouraging farmers to diversify their crops and herds. Kamerman feels that CSAs and farmers markets, while nice, are “band-aids” – a food co-op is open daily and year-round and fits today’s lifestyle. Plus, there are more benefits of the co-op model. When profits are plowed back into the store it becomes more than a food outlet, it becomes an educational center and community meeting place. And, importantly, local money stays local.Both Manchester and Keene are in the process of building their membership, a necessary step before any ground is broken. Keene is ahead with almost 600 members signed up with a $200 membership fee. Members’ equity is an important part of the equation. Financiers look to local commitment before they lend and members, in the end, own part of the business and can have a say in how it is run. It may take three or more years, but members also get dividends which can be cash back at the end of the year or store credit.The Monadnock Co-op is sited to be in the Railroad Square area, which has undergone recent development. First, membership has to reach 1,000 and additional funds raised from member loans, grants and donations.For local citizens to organize and build takes the same forethought as any business. Feasibility studies are mounted and a business plan is developed. In Manchester, Kamerman had help from her former employer, Southern New Hampshire University’s School of Economic Development. She had worked with Dr. Christina Clamp who taught cooperative development at SNHU for the past 30 years. The feasibility study implied that a co-op would do well in the mill building area or the West Side. Before a location can be confirmed, membership, now at about 150, needs to reach 1,200. With a larger population base than Keene, the Manchester group is only asking $100 per membership or household.The food co-op movement gained steam in the early ’70s with dedicated folks renting storefronts to divide bags of bulk items such as 50 lb. bags of oats for making homemade granola. Most of the groups fell apart without the framework of a studied business model. Within a few years, corporations also smelled the cinnamon and began putting hundreds of varieties of granola in tidy boxes. Of course, it had too much sugar and didn’t taste that great, but oh, those market forces spun oats into gold.Now – with long shelves filled with endless choices of granola, yogurt and a “natural” section in supermarkets – can the community-spirited model thrive and flourish? The food prices will be higher, but so now is the concern for healthy food. With the publication of the “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the movie “Food, Inc.,” people are understanding the real cost of cheap food. In short, it costs the environment and it costs our health – both difficult to mend.Kamerman says with one-third of our children considered obese it’s time to regain control of our food sources and distribution. It may take nutritional education and a retooling of our food ethics, but the co-op can take their profits and plow them back into classes and building a sense of community and shared values. This isn’t Communism, or commune-ism, it’s capitalism with concern. It’s not a stretch to say that large food corporations can’t be encouraged to produce healthier products by the buying power of educated eaters.The recent foray into food co-ops could sound like pie in the sky if there weren’t already a successful model. The Hanover Co-op just celebrated its 75th anniversary and the Concord Co-op is 30 years old. With 20,000 members and a $5 membership fee, the Hanover/Lebanon phenomenon continues to flourish. Concord ($100 fee), with an 8,000-square-foot space on downtown’s Main Street, is currently about the same size planned for Manchester and Keene. A Littleton food co-op (fee $25 to $100) opened in May of 2009 with three years of preparation.The Concord Food Co-op is now planning an expansion for 2012. One of the offerings to be expanded will be the Celery Stick Café, now just a few tables in the front and a cafeteria-style serving station. Eight kitchen staffers fill the trays about 15 times a day. It’s good food, cooked in a home-style way. Executive Chef Mike Cook says the expansion will include a full deli section and a greatly expanded selection of prepared foods, all using products available at the market. Cook also helps educate the public with cooking lessons. Just how do you use those ugly Jerusalem artichokes? This topic and many others, from Spring gardening to cooking with sea vegetables to wellness topics to yoga practice, are offered as classes at N.H. food co-ops. Most are open to non-members for a small additional fee.Should you join a food co-op? Members get occasional special sale prices and possible dividend shares. You don’t have to join to shop or take classes, but the one-time fee is a statement about your commitment to the local economy and a healthier you. Worth the investment, I’d say. NHClick here for Chef Mike Cook’s creamed kale and potatoes recipe.