The role for co-op’s in today’s social challenges – healthy people, planet and profit

25/09/2014 / Kaj

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Upstream along the Hudson River and a few hours’ train journey from New York City lies the state capital of Albany, a city comparable in size to Stockholm (with a population of around 1 million). After more than 20 years’ experience of Swedish co-operatives — a movement that seems to be losing its soul and market – I was delighted to find, in Albany, one of the more exciting consumer cooperatives that I have encountered in my time working in the sustainability sector.

The trip, which was made from my temporary base in the small town Rensselaerville in upstate New York, raised important questions. What role can the co-operatives play in the social challenges we face in today’s society? How can they evolve from the model used by the 19th century cooperatives formed in Rochdale, England — which focused on the ethical trading of pure and unadulterated products — to meet new societal needs?

The Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany is a lively, modern store which weaves its values into every aspect of daily trade: active volunteers, an open membership, democratic decision-making, financial participation, education, independence, networking with other cooperatives and a strong voice for social responsibility. Inside I met Colie Collen, the store’s Training Manager, who told me more about the principles the store embodies.

- Honest Weight is a member owned and operated consumer cooperative that is committed to providing the community with affordable, high quality natural foods and products for healthy living.

- Our mission is to promote more equitable, participatory and ecologically sustainable ways of living. We welcome all who choose to participate in a community which embraces cooperative principles, shares resources, and creates economic fairness in an atmosphere of cooperation and respect for humanity and the earth.”

- We have over 10,000 members, and about 1,100 of them are working members, who do a variety of jobs.

- We work with local farmers and producers as much as possible. We support over 320 local producers and 285 farms.

And we are the only Honest Weight Food Co-op, and have been in existence for almost 40 years, in 4 different locations, said Colie Collen.

Many of the shoppers I met testified to both the appreciation and dedication they had for the store. It’s profitability is also seen doing well and the members enjoy a healthy relationship based on participation and commitment.

But visiting the United States can open your eyes to a larger challenge that co-ops will need to address: the large number of overweight people. Collectively, Americans spend 2.2 trillion dollars a year on health, more than five times the country’s defense budget. Yet one in three people are at risk for diabetes (although to be fair, us Europeans fare little better in this regard).

That evening, I sat down to watch a documentary which links to both the Honest Weight Food Co-op and the global health crisis – Forks over Knives. The film should inspire us all to help alleviate the social crisis that results from the way we consume food. Three of the professors interviewed in the film, Dr. Matt Lederman, Dr. Colin Campbell and Dr. Caldwell Esseltyn, have been working with scientists around the world and their message is clear: we will not solve our long-term health problems of diabetes, cancer, and heart or vascular diseases with new medicines — we must move towards lifestyle changes that see whole, planted food become our primary source of food.

It made me think about my own food intake. My stomach can be completely filled with 500 calories’ worth of vegetables and plants, but only fills a little more than 50 percent if I consume the same number of calories in processed food. In the latter case, the signal to my brain is that I need to eat more to fill the remaining space.

And it is not only processed foods. The film references long-term studies in China showing how diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and some cancers are increasing with direct links to increased intake of meat and dairy products. In studies conducted in Norway during its occupation in World War II, scientists found a significant reduction in cardiovascular disease among Norwegian citizens at the time. Why? The Germans took most of the animal protein-rich food for their own soldiers soldiers.

Gunhild Stordalen, A Doctor and Director of the new Global Initiative EAT Forum, said in an interview in the METRO magazine Insider this summer – People starving in the developing countries and at the same time it is an increasingly numbers of people with obesity problem and cronicle deceases  – We need to encourage experts, corporations and politicians to get more involved in this discussion. – Todays lifestyle put our planet at risk. -We eat in away that destroy both our self and the planet.

Widespread lifestyle changes are not simply for personal and social benefits — these health issues should also be viewed from a climate perspective. We use more than ten times as much fossil fuel energy to produce food from animals than to produce whole foods. Since the 1970s, the Amazon rainforest has decreased by over 20 percent (the size of California) to make room for milk and meat production. In 80 percent of this land, grain is grown to feed cows rather than hungry stomachs around the world.

Today’s societal problems are complex and we need to make new demands on policy-makers at local, regional, national and global levels. We cannot fall victim to the narrow thinking that has thus far led us astray — this is not about any single issue but many interconnected ones. We need leaders and decision-makers who understand how the different sectors of our societies are linked and can develop new ways to collaborate (reading Ready for Anything, an uplifting book – about social change and leadership, would be an excellent start).

It is this sort of understanding and collaboration that co-operatives are built on, so why shouldn’t they pave the way for this development? Their community-based development models effectively respond to today’s social problems. The Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany is an inspiring example and there are many more just like it, on all continents.

But where are the Co-operative leaders who will take the lead and carry this message into the public debate?

Kaj Embrén

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