This is the first in a series of columns on the politics of local food by Kara Joy McKee, general operations manager of the Oklahoma Food Cooperative. The Coop connects consumers to local food producers through a website that allows people to order directly from Oklahoma farmers. Orders are distributed every month at 40 sites throughout the state.
by Kara Joy McKee
As the new general operations manager of the Oklahoma Food Cooperative (OKF), I had the privilege to travel to our nation’s capital last month to get a front and center view of the creativity and politics of the international local food movement. The OKF had been chosen to participate in the Wallace Foundation’s 2009 Community Food Enterprise study, which sought to identify the most promising and innovative local food projects going on today. They were impressed enough to invite us to be one of only three presenters out of twelve U.S. enterprises in the study.
OKF has developed a new model for a sustainable local food system that is now spreading across the U.S. and Canada. As the Wallace Foundation describes us, “The Oklahoma Food Cooperative is a new concept in food distribution. It brings together regional food producers and consumers through an easy-to-navigate website. With a statewide network of volunteers, the enterprise pumps nearly $1 million into the pockets of local food producers each year. The model is so simple, so inexpensive, and so effective that it has spread to Idaho, Texas, Michigan, Iowa, Kansas, Colorado, and two locations in Ontario, Canada.”
The Community Food Enterprise conference on that unseasonably warm January day was held in the heart of downtown Washington DC, and our Wallace Foundation hosts were a blur of activity as they readied the international webinar and situated the morning panel of presenters. After viewing fascinating posters describing efforts ranging from Thailand’s Cabbages and Condoms to Fundacion Paraguaya’s Financially Self-Sufficient Organic Farm School, I situated myself between two friendly African ladies. It turned out one was from Zambia and the other from Kenya, and we had just enough time to introduce ourselves and for them to begin quizzing me about Oklahoma before the presenters began.
The CFE study focused on 12 national and 12 international community food enterprises. These 24 organizations had diverse strategies, organizational models and sizes. But they were all focused on local foods and at least 50 percent locally owned. The study looked at how they addressed the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profits, their strategies and challenges, and their likelihood of duplicability.
Study author Michael Schuman said that local food enterprises are becoming competitive through strategies such as marketing a higher quality product, working together with local partners, integrating vertically, doing outreach to low income neighbors, and developing new strategies for distribution, “such as the Oklahoma Food Coop who has brought the cost of distribution including transport, packaging and marketing down from 73 to18 cents on the dollar.”
At this point there was a murmur from the crowd, and the woman from Kenya gave me an appreciative nod and smile. That small stir was only a preview of the interest we would spur that day. Our own April Harrington, Treasurer of the Oklahoma Food Co-op and owner of Earth Elements Farm, kept the audience laughing as she brought them into our world of trial-and-error grassroots Okie economics and adaptation.
The participants were mightily impressed that we managed to distribute nearly $700,000 worth of local food and other products in 2009 without a single full time employee. They cheered us on for our community involvement, accessible leadership structure, and our 7 percent rate of growth during the hard economic times of 2009. April left them all excited to learn more.
While the other two panelists from Zingerman’s in Michigan and Greenmarket in New York city gave excellent presentations and gave me a lot of new ideas, I couldn’t help but beam with pride as the majority of questions from the audience were directed to April about the OKF.
Over lunch I discovered that my new friend from Kenya was in fact the afternoon presenter from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She spoke about the food situation in Africa, explaining that 70 percent of Africans are farmers and 90 percent of all work done with food is done by women. She said that a 1 percent increase in African agriculture yields a 6 percent income increase for the poorest 10 percent. Most Africans struggle with low yields and high transportation costs, so distribution is a major challenge. They find that aggregation/working cooperatively is a key strategy to success.
This focus on cooperation and distribution may have explained why she was so interested in the OKF. She was so taken with our system that she made at least five references to “what they are doing in Oklahoma” during her presentation.
I was impressed with how much we had in common with the international speakers. Both the catering and farming collective from Zambia and the farm school in Paraguay had important lessons to share. They were also interested in learning more from our OKF system.
At the end of the day a speaker from Zimbabwe spoke passionately about how building up the local food system and increasing both producer and consumer education for him had become about educating “whole people” who feel empowered to change their world. As I heard his words, I reflected on my own home and all the people I see becoming empowered by local food. I look forward to sharing more of those stories with you as together we shape the politics of local food.