The United States has seen the opening of more than 167 food cooperatives since 2006, according to the Food Co-op Initiative (FCI). Within this movement, Black-led co-ops are tackling food access and racial justice, which can help to fulfill a community’s needs while addressing systemic inequalities to restore power to the people.
Community members themselves own, manage, and govern food co-ops. “They’re about the collective buying power, the collective political power, and especially the collective people power,” says Jasmine Ratliff, Co-Executive Director of the National Black Food and Justice Alliance (NBFJA).
Largely due to historic, systemic disparities in economic resources, Black communities often experience barriers to food sovereignty. Ratliff describes food sovereignty as the right for people to define their own food and agriculture systems, and this is inherently bound up with racial injustice.
Racialized land disenfranchisement is one obstacle to participating in the food system. “We think back into the 1920s when there were nearly 1 million Black farmers in the United States, and now we’re less than one percent of farmers,” Ratliff says.
While the Black community experiences limited control within the food system as producers, ripple effects are felt by consumers who face a lack of food access. A study by the Center of American Progress reports that for over two decades, Black households have been twice as likely to experience food insecurity than white households. In 2020, 21.7 percent of Black households and 7.1 percent of white households experienced food insecurity.
Racial inequalities within land and food access that hinder food sovereignty are built into the mainstream food system. “The conditions which led to a lack of access to food are connected to larger issues,” Darnell Adams, Consultant and Leadership Coach at Firebrand Cooperative, tells Food Tank.
These inextricably linked problems gave rise to Gem City Market in Dayton, Ohio. The market sits on the city’s West side, which has experienced extensive redlining and historical disinvestment, according to Amaha Sellassie, Board President of Gem City Market. Dayton is also a highly segregated city, with African Americans constituting 98 percent of the West side.
Sellassie describes Gem City Market as a “survival mechanism” for people. “We had 40,000 residents and no full-service grocery store,” he tells Food Tank.
A year and a half after its opening, Gem City Market now provides access to fresh produce for Dayton’s West side. The co-op also creates meaningful jobs. “It’s seen as a strategy for community development in a community capacity,” Sellassie says.
Black communities have experienced similar situations of disenfranchisement across the U.S. and, as in Dayton, co-ops have opened to address historical inequities in the food system.
In West Oakland, California, Jeneba Kilgore, Worker-Owner at Mandela Grocery Cooperative, describes extremely limited options for communities to purchase food. “A lot of the neighborhoods in West Oakland had 20 to 30 liquor stores and an assortment of fast-food restaurants but no full-size grocery stores,” Kilgore says. The Mandela Grocery Cooperative opened in 2009 and was the first grocery store on its street since the 1960s.
Co-operative models also present opportunities to return agency to community members. Adams explains that Black people are sometimes viewed only as consumers in the food system. “But we don’t talk about Black people also as producers of food,” she tells Food Tank.
Mark Winston Griffith, Vice Chair of the Central Brooklyn Food Coop (CBFC) Board of Directors, says the co-op dismantles the idea that food is “something that needs to be given to us, but really, as an expression and an assertion of our own power, our own genius, our own creativity, our ability to do for ourselves—to build institutions that are going to sustain us and literally feed us,” he says.
Through a co-op model, Black people become owners and take on management roles. “The process of building a co-op turned us into co-creators or protagonists in our own story,” Sellassie says.
Adams also sees value in the framework that food co-ops provide for communities. “I do think that the reason why it is so attractive is, in some ways, it is very flexible.” Gem City Market, for example, responds to the changing needs of the community by offering variety. From generic to name brands, co-op consumers can choose what best fulfills their financial needs.
“The thing about the cooperative model is that it does allow you to address what your community needs.” Adams tells Food Tank.
Co-ops have served Black communities in the U.S. for generations, as Jessica Gordon Nemhard details in her book Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice. During slavery, the Black community often pooled economic resources to pay for burials, illnesses and treatments, and even freedom. And following the Civil War, the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Co-operative Union was established when the Southern Farmers’ Alliance excluded Black farmers.
In the present day, 167 co-ops have opened across the U.S. since 2006, FCI reports. Among these are the Black-led co-ops, like Gem City Market, Mandela Grocery Cooperative, and the CBFC. “We’re kind of pioneering a new way,” Sellassie tells Food Tank. More are slated to open soon, including the Detroit People’s Food Co-op, Fertile Ground in Raleigh, and the SoLA Food Co-op in Los Angeles.
“Time and time again people keep coming back to this model,” Adams tells Food Tank.
Adams anticipates momentum growing around the movement as more people are exposed to the possibilities of co-ops as alternative economic models. “I think because there are more Black co-ops organizing, there’s more evidence that Black people can organize food co-ops,” she says.
While Black-led co-ops are certainly making an impact within their communities, “the story remains to be told in a larger context,” Adams tells Food Tank.
“Black co-ops are a way to build not only solidarity, but self-determination,” Sellassie tells Food Tank. “It’s building power.”
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