Web Exclusive #1: “COVID-19 Inspires a Cooperative CSA”

*For our recently published special issue, “Food in the Time of COVID-19”, we received more submissions than we could accommodate in the print version of the issue, so the following article forms part of a series of submissions which will be published as Web Exclusives which speak to the theme of Gastronomica 20.3.

By Angela Babb and Megan Betz

April 25, 2020: Bloomington, Indiana

In January 2020, the People’s Cooperative Market (PCM) formed in response to a crisis of white supremacy in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana. In 2019, vendors at the city-run farmers’ market were identified as recruiters for a white nationalist hate group, resulting in rising tension between anti-racist activists, far-right extremists, and the city government, who supported the vendor’s right to free speech and access to the market. The city sought a resolution to keep these vendors in the market, adding barricades and increased police presence. The result was a heightened sense of threatened safety, making explicit the long-standing sense of othering experienced by marginalized populations attending the market (Wu 2019). When the city voted in January to continue running the market, and again included these self-described Identitarians as vendors, a group of 15 women, approximately half of whom were Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC), convened to develop a safe and inclusive alternative market.

Five farmers, four activists, three food business owners, and three scholars came together to form what is now called the People’s Cooperative Market. Organized around the need for a safe and inclusive market for local food, we started a cooperative and gathered weekly to develop our vision, mission, and goals. We articulated values to define our cooperative market, centering on equitable access to locally grown food, restorative justice and anti-racist practice, collective values shared by our vendors and partners, and meaningful collaboration (People’s Cooperative Market 2020).

We committed to a mission of creating spaces that are: “welcoming, inclusive, and accessible; led and directed with people from marginalized communities, farmers, and vendors; an educational and cultural hub; and a source of awareness of the work we need to continue to do” (ibid.). We wanted food justice for both marginalized producers and disenfranchised consumers. Envisioning more than a marketplace, we sought to create spaces for building community, providing education, and promoting equity and anti-racism. However, as our new market was preparing for its inaugural season, the COVID-19 crisis escalated, and the immediate future of all farmers’ markets became unclear. In the crisis, these women demonstrated the adaptability and nimbleness of community-led initiatives.

 On March 21, PCM piloted an online ordering system modeled after community supported agriculture (CSA). The People’s CSA was distributed from the parking lot of Bloomingfoods, our town’s cooperative grocery who has proved an ally and resource to PCM. Using volunteer labor, we collected products from vendors in the early hours of a cold Saturday morning. To keep it simple, we sorted these products into produce boxes and egg and bread boxes. Customers, who ordered online earlier in the week, arrived for the drive-thru pick up where glove-wearing volunteers placed their order in the trunks of their cars.

FIGURES. 1 and 2. Wearing masks and gloves, volunteers greet CSA customers from a distance and then place the customer’s order in the trunk of their vehicle.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY CLAIRE FROHMAN © 2020

A distinguishing feature of the People’s CSA is the option to sponsor boxes for donation. From its pilot week, we have been committed to having 25% of boxes sold allocated for those who cannot purchase them. We encourage customers to purchase boxes to sponsor in addition to purchasing for their own household. Then, using the same online ordering form, households self-identify as needing a sponsored box and request the boxes that would be most useful to their household. With the help of mutual aid delivery drivers,1 our surplus of sponsored boxes are delivered to free meal providers and pantries in the area.

In its first week, the People’s CSA moved $2,040 into the pockets of seven local vendors who align with PCM’s mission and values. With the aid of customer sponsors, we donated 52 boxes to those in need. In week two, we served 10 vendors and sales more than doubled to $4,500, including 158 boxes purchased for sponsorship (42% of total boxes). Sales doubled again in week three, when we included 13 vendors and added boxes of cold-hardy plants, lamb, chicken and pork, and cheese. In partnership with our fiscal sponsor,2 we became authorized as a SNAP retailer and began selling boxes at 50% cost to EBT cardholders, subsidizing these boxes with donations.

Seemingly overnight (because we don’t sleep now), PCM built a new, safe, inclusive place to support local farmers and vendors and to access fresh, local food. As the timeline for social distancing lengthened, PCM again pivoted, moving the People’s CSA from a pilot project to its primary function for the time being. In addition to growing to meet demand from customers and vendors, PCM is prioritizing growing its ability to serve a broad audience. Plans are to set up multiple distribution points where we can accept EBT, acquire a vehicle for a mobile market, and build an online store for local food. First and foremost, we will continue to prioritize the voices of farmers, vendors, and BIPOC in our leadership and do the critical work of supporting the livelihoods of our local vendors, increasing economic and geographic access to fresh produce and other staple foods, especially for marginalized populations.

This project has demonstrated the decisive role of community in feeding each other and ourselves during challenging times. The initial vision of PCM emerged in response to crisis, and perhaps for that reason we are more resilient in the face of new crises. Indeed, we believe that what makes this project resilient is our shared values and cooperative model (Wu 2020). As conflict and difficult decisions emerge, our mission and vision keep us focused; our values keep us grounded; and our cooperative structure keeps us engaged in earnest dialogue as we work toward consensus. The diversity of representation in our leadership enables creativity and adaptability as the pandemic rapidly changes daily life, and the trust we have built within PCM is now supporting the trust we are building in the community.  

Notes

  1. Originated by Abby Ang and Jessy Tang, Monroe County Area Mutual Aid for Covid-19 is an online resource where individuals can request and fulfill support. The group has developed an extensive list of local resources in addition to their help request and fulfillment form, and the effort has received recognition through citations by area service providers, including United Way of Monroe County and units of Indiana University-Bloomington.
  2. PCM is fiscally sponsored by Artisan Alley, a nonprofit artist collective whose mission is to “bring together area artists and the local community to foster art education, art collaboration, and cooperation in support of the arts.” (https://www.artisanalley.com/)

References

People’s Cooperative Market. 2020. “About.” 2020. https://www.peoplesmarketbtown.org/about.

Wu, Ellen. 2019. “Bloomington 2019: ‘The Year of the Farmers’ Market Controversy’.” Limestone Post. https://www.limestonepostmagazine.com/bloomington-2019-year-of-farmers-market-controversy/.

Wu, Ellen. 2020. “Ethos of New People’s Market Focuses on Food Justice, Mutual Aid.” Limestone Post. https://www.limestonepostmagazine.com/peoples-market-ethos-focuses-on-food-justice-mutual-aid/.

Angela Babb is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University-Bloomington, where she researches the political economy of food with a focus on food justice and nutrition assistance policy. Babb is also Director of the Critical Food Studies Lab at the Indiana University Food Institute.

Megan Betz is a PhD candidate in the Geography Department at Indiana University-Bloomington, where she examines the community-building potential of local food, in particular community orchard projects. She is also a member of the planning committee for the Peoples’ Cooperative Market.