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Food is a Shaman: Part 2. A Two-Part Commentary on a Community Based Externship in Sitka, Alaska

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Keren Zhu
June 7, 2021

Walking through aisles of any grocery store feels like roaming in a living museum. The ongoing exhibition is about the Earth’s abundance and our decisions about food. Of all the possible relationships with food we could develop given what nature provides, we have taken for granted that buying bagged vegetables and boxed frozen dinner from a chain store is the way to get food. My experience in Sitka demonstrated that cooperatives offer an alternative.

Over decades of development, grocery giants have come to dominate the processes and infrastructure involved in feeding a population. Dominant players dictate terms and extract more out of consumers, leaving less for farmers. Food suppliers finance grocery giants’ growth through payment arrangements favorable to the latter; category management allows retail chains to choose exclusive manufacturers, increasing grocery giants’ bargaining power and eliminating competition. Consumers end up paying for these “added values”—manufacturers’ payments to put their products on grocery shelves, retailers’ operational and marketing expenses—all in the name of convenience.

This collusion of stakeholders to prolong the profit chain breeds a fast-food culture where farmers are getting the smallest part of every dollar consumers spend on food, consumers losing basic skills for cooking healthy meals, communities living in food deserts and individuals facing more severe food security challenges.

I was in Sitka for a six-week externship to help a local food co-op document its history and challenges, and identify pathways forward. The Sitka Food Co-op, an example of consumer-owned cooperatives, demonstrates a locally-based economic model that takes capital out of the hands of grocery giants and invests it back in the community in ways that enrich and empower. It offers fresher and more organic food at a more affordable price. Compared with typical food cooperatives, The Sitka Food Co-op features a unique model of development that can inspire other communities.

First, the Sitka model by necessity and design is more suitable for small, isolated communities. Typically, food cooperatives are located in places with a large population base near a college or university, with highly educated individuals supporting cooperative principles, and with adjacent or satellite communities that provide additional sales and support. In contrast, the Sitka Food Co-op is based in an island town in Southeast Alaska of 8,543 people, with food access only through ship and air transportation.

Second, even though the Sitka Food Co-op operates without a storefront, it has generated outstanding sales revenue. A permanent storefront is often deemed a prerequisite for a food cooperative, requiring a multi-million-dollar resource pooling from members. The Sitka Food Co-op, in contrast, relies on temporary food distribution venues such as churches and conference halls. Started in a garage by five families, it has grown through word of mouth to handle tons of food for 250 members on a weekly basis. In fact, without a storefront, the volume of produce, meat and chilled goods it handles is unprecedented among food cooperatives in the United States, and its sales revenue far exceeds many with storefronts.

Third, the co-op offers wholesome food at an affordable and competitive price. Food cooperatives tend to be associated with high quality food at a higher price. The Sitka Food Co-op, in contrast, is able to offer low-cost fresh and wholesome produce through volunteer-run food distribution that minimizes operational costs. In addition, in cultivating direct relationship with brokers who oversee the distribution and pricing of numerous brands, the co-op is able to purchase an assortment of products at substantial discounts, offering a competitive retail price while maintaining a relatively high profit margin, achieving a win-win for customers and the co-op.

Is the Sitka model transferrable to other communities? While some approaches seem transferrable, each place requires tailored solutions. For example, in transferring the Sitka co-op model to Kodiak, another island community in Alaska with a comparable population size, the challenge lies in how to provide affordable food to six more remote village communities with a combined population of 800. In transferring the Sitka model to Fairbanks, an Alaskan city of 30,000 people, the difficulty lies in maintaining a low operational cost while scaling up.

Another critical piece that is not easily transferrable is the enthusiasm and “sweat capital” of volunteers and managers that subsidized the co-op’s growth. Sitka has an educated population and has developed a highly collaborative community culture thanks in part to the local newspaper and radio station. In a community with a lower education level and fewer shared values, volunteer burnout is more likely to happen, and co-op managers may demand higher compensation, making co-op operation more costly.

Some broader questions of inclusivity remain to be answered. For example, how to move beyond the white population who make up the co-op’s supporters to engage with a more diverse community? How can we better support locally sourced food and traditional ways of food production? How can food co-ops stand up to the advancement of platform economies such as Amazon?

My Sitka experience prompted me to reflect on my relationship with food. I now have a set of “curator’s notes” when I look at the “exhibitions” in my local grocery store back home.

Author: Keren Zhu ([email protected], @Zhu_Keren) is a PhD candidate at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Her research interests include global infrastructure and international development. Prior to joining RAND, she was the international affairs manager at Research and Development International, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, where she promoted international cooperation and produced policy research to advance the Belt and Road Initiative.

Her thoughts do not necessarily reflect those of the RAND Corporation, Pardee RAND, or RAND’s research sponsors.

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