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How a Maine Food Co-op Could Push Local Food to the Next Level

In Maine, a food production cooperative’s big contract bid could bring local food to an institutional level.

(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)

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The mass-produced carrots and peppers on most of our plates are tasteless and bland compared to their locally grown counterparts, and most of us don’t even realize it. We have grown used to eating old produce shipped long distances by Sodexo, Aramark and Compass, the three major food service management corporations that control 90 percent of the national food service market.

National efforts are afoot, however, to develop mass appetites for better-tasting and nutritious food grown locally, and these efforts are starting to alter the face of food production in the United States.

A misconception about cooperatives is that they can’t scale up to meet demands from large orders.

One of the most dramatic possibilities for large-scale change in food production is being contemplated in Maine, where the Maine Farm and Sea Cooperative is bidding against Sodexo (based in Paris) and Aramark (based in Philadelphia) in an effort to win a $12.5 million, five-year contract to operate food procurement and service operations at seven of the eight University of Maine campuses. The Maine Farm and Sea Cooperative – potentially the country’s first farm-to-institution food service cooperative – wants to offer locally sourced food for the university community. The cooperative and the two mega-corporations submitted their bids for the contract in early December.

Ron Adams, a former director of Portland Public Schools’ food programs and board member of the cooperative, believes the increasing demand for locally grown food – from outside consumers and students alike – will provide the shift needed to bring local foods to an institutional level.

The University of Maine’s current contract, which will expire on June 30, 2016, is with Aramark, according to the university’s records. If the university awarded the contract to one of the two other bidders, it would end Aramark’s 10-year relationship with the university system.

According to the University of Maine’s request for proposals, which was released this past August, the system has set a goal of sourcing 20 percent local food by 2020.

Cooperative Food Production

What makes co-ops unique within the arena of food production? Externally, co-ops appear similar to conventional businesses: They have a storefront, a brand and employees, and they sell a product. What’s different is what’s going on inside.

The stakeholders are local. They’re connected to the business and the community: They go to school there, live there or work there. They’re users who are deeply invested in the process beyond the motive of making money.

Jonah Fertig, a Maine-based specialist in cooperative ventures, says a misconception about cooperatives is that they can’t scale up to meet demands from large orders, like those that would come from the seven UMaine campuses. However, Marada Cook, president of Crown O’Maine Organic Cooperative, believes the Maine Farm and Sea Cooperative will fill orders while also providing an economic boost to producers.

“[The co-op] will provide farmers and fishermen with consistent demand for their products at predictable and fair prices,” she said.

In the United States, 30,000 cooperatives provide more than 2 million jobs, according to the National Cooperative Business Association. Examples of large-scale, cooperative operations include Ocean Spray and Organic Valley.

Riley Neugebauer of Farm to Institution New England said both development of the Maine agricultural economy and support for local economies must be “a core component” of operations for whichever company is awarded the contract.

With co-ops, money stays in the community. Any profits reaped are distributed to members through dividend payments.

With co-ops, money stays in the community. Any profits reaped are distributed to members through dividend payments.

Over the summer, the Maine Food for the UMaine System coalition – a group of students, producers and organizations working toward a more sustainable food system in their state – released a set of recommendations backed by more than 150 Maine producers, as well as 1,500 students and University of Maine system community members. They centered around four main recommendations: a commitment to 20 percent procurement of locally sourced food by 2020; the establishment of a university-system-wide food working group that would include all types of members of the campus community; transparent tracking; and a commitment to a supply chain partnership with Maine producers. The recommendations also detail suggestions for sustainability expectations, equity and diversity, menu planning, and education and marketing, according to documents on their website.

Audrey Cross, a student majoring in environmental sciences at UMaine-Orono, was a co-coordinator of programs at the coalition this past summer. Although Cross’ campus, which operates its own food service, would not be affected by any contract change, Cross said she’s noticed excitement building on campus around the idea of a cooperative providing food service for the university system.

“I know some producers around me that will benefit from the contract regardless of who wins the contract,” Cross said.

Cross has also been organizing other students around food issues through the Real Food Challenge, a national movement that seeks to shift millions of dollars in food contracts away from industrial food productions and toward local, community-based, fair and ecologically sound sources.

Cain Landry, a student majoring in sustainability studies at the Orono campus, is another member of the Real Food Challenge. Landry is uncomfortable with the idea of consuming food from a major corporation that sources from other major producers.

“If the [Maine Farm and Sea] Co-op gets the contract, it’ll benefit the local economy and hundred of farms across Maine,” he said. “Students would benefit from eating ‘real’ food.”

Landry said regardless of who is awarded the contract, students will continue to pressure University of Maine officials to honor their commitment to fairly traded, locally sourced food that also meets fair labor standards. According to UMaine’s most recent request for proposals, the system has committed to sourcing 30 percent local food by 2030.

Cross says advocacy groups must hold the recipient of the contract accountable. She mentioned, as an example of the need to stay diligent, a widely publicized incident this August regarding Aramark’s food service contract with the University of Kentucky. Kentucky food activists successfully pressured Aramark to source 20 percent local food from Kentucky-based producers. Almost half of what was spent on local products went toward purchasing ice and soft drinks, including $1 million in products from the Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Company.

“That’s What Democracy Is”

Cooperatives aren’t limited to the food industry; they are democratically owned businesses found in all sectors and industries, including energy, construction, health care, farming and technology. They are operated by member-owners based on seven international principles that include democratic control, concern for community and member participation.

Cheyenna Weber is a member of Solidarity NYC, a collective of organizers, activists and media makers engaged in the development of the “solidarity economy” – an alternative economic model that supports racial and economic justice, and democratically controlled enterprises – in New York and nationally.

“Cooperatives give you a chance to really learn to advocate for what your needs are, and acknowledge what other people’s need are,” Weber said. “That’s what democracy is.”

But in all kinds of democracy, plans are imperfect because they are made by people.

Weber said some cooperatives replicate the power structures they’re supposed to be dismantling: Low-income workers may be priced out of buying a membership in a co-op; workers without a higher-education background remain in low-level positions; workers may experience sexual harassment in the workplace.

“It takes a lot of work to address that,” she said. “But they are a unique space that provides a space to talk about things and address them in a community. The potential is there.”

Fertig says because the cooperative structure is inherently democratic, community members, campus workers and producers will have input into a process in which they’ve historically had no agency.

“Cooperatives open up space for people across the food chain to engage with each other over grievances, ideas for development and collaboration.” Fertig said. “Those spaces aren’t as present on campuses with the current setup.”

Student Audrey Cross remembers how food became the issue that politicized her. A high school friend whom she had lunch with every day pulled her into a food sustainability initiative on the campus. Cross was captivated by the many intersections “food justice” had in her own life, such as caring about the living standards of farmworkers and wanting to support local producers instead of “big-box” chains.

“I was able to talk to people about farmers, sustainable production, labor standards and more,” she said. “Food connects to everyone.”

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