The following post was written by Marc BrownGold, General Manager of the Swarthmore Co-op
I love food. Not in the way that you love food, because for everyone it is an emotional, personal, beautiful thing. Let me tell you a little bit about myself and my relationship to food.
I always loved to be around food and I got my first cookbook when I was five years old. The Snoopy Cookbook was full of complicated recipes and I soon had my favorite – a homemade pizza made with a slice of white bread, catsup, and pepperoni. I should have known that I was doomed to spend my life in the biz when I would not put that pizza in the toaster oven until the pepperoni slices were symmetrically aligned and once in the oven, could not be pulled out until the sides of the bread were golden brown, the catsup started to caramelize, and the pepperoni curled just so. I later graduated to some real cooking; standing next to my Jewish mother grating potatoes and onions for latkes. I enjoyed every tear and every cut the grater put on my hand. Fast forward to working at my cousins catering business from the age of 14, working in my grandfather’s Italian restaurant in Haverford, working for Steve Poses in Philadelphia where I met my wife, working in a butcher shop and for caterers, then finally settling into my first gourmet food store and restaurant in Bucks County. Believe me when I tell you that I love food so much, I like to watch water boil and the feel of kosher salt in my hands. I would get so excited about the perfectly cooked rack of lamb that I would blush when it looked at me. I have held my breath when I put a chocolate mousse in the walk-in and wondered if it would firm up. I’ve even held in my pee during so many rushes in the restaurant (this is common in the biz) that I joked that there would be a home for retired chefs that could not hold their bladders.
As I stated before, I met my wife cooking in the first restaurant I ever worked in and spent many nights at my restaurant working next to my sons, who are now grown and enjoy cooking for their wives. I could not have asked for a better twist, and the answer to a lot of food questions that I had, when I answered an ad on Craigslist, and joined the Swarthmore Co-op about four years ago.
Food has provided me and my family with a rich life and now it’s time to give back. I wish I could say that it was not necessary to do this, that the food system, the food shed, our food alliances, do not need to be given back to, but it is a reality that we have exploited our resources, our farmers, our animals and our morals. Food has become a commodity owned by stockholders, with vegetables so chemically altered that the FDA cannot call some corn and beets vegetables, but instead have categorized them as insecticides. How can we justify confining a mama hog in a crate so small that she cannot turn her body after giving birth? We collect her waste in pools and spray that over fields in a high stream that pollutes waterways, and keeps the nearby residents in their homes on beautiful days. We feed steer a steady diet of a substance that it was not meant to eat, waste the lives of dairy cattle by keeping them lactating for their whole lives, feeding them drugs, and ultimately cutting their life expectancy in half. We stuff birds in cages that barely allow them to stand up and expect them to lay egg after egg and abuse them when they can no longer do this.
You want people stories? Sell a group of Indian farmers a bill of goods, which causes them to lose everything they own. We watch them commit suicide with the very chemicals that were to allegedly meant to help them with crop yield. Even today, Monsanto is putting a full court press on Sudanese farmers, convincing them to grow monocultures, introducing them to the beauty of GMO seed and the amazing yield that they can produce along with the herbicide and insecticide.
Co-ops aid these problems – starting with the food and continuing with everything in the pores of the co-op.
Before you walk into the Swarthmore Co-op, you see a couple of signs that tell you that this is no ordinary business. “Bring your re-useable bag for 5 cents credit,” they read. Walk in and see that we are not a dirty, low ceiling, poorly lit business selling a limited amount of products. It’s funny, but when purveyors first walk in to the Co-op, they do not know what to say and I fill in the blanks. “That’s right, not what you expected, right?” Walk around the corner and see no hormone, no antibiotic deli meats, prepared food, some made with organic produce. There’s also fried chicken made with local chickens and pulled pork made with local, sustainable pork. Our meats come from a supplier that does not consider a CAFO a way to raise his beef. A supplier, who takes considers bycatch, the health of fisheries, and the method in which the fish are caught, vets our sustainable seafood. Consider the Merrymead milk, from Montgomery, PA who have Co-ops to thank for exhausting their supply of milk so they don’t have to dump their milk to Lehigh Valley dairies and support the giant Dean Foods, a corporation hell bent on putting small dairy farmers out of business. We sell raw milk, local catsup, bulk & organic spices and sauces. We buy produce from thirty different farmers. Our produce manager does not even refer to his producers by their company. Instead, we have conversations about those beautiful figs from Shirley, or that amazing Cauliflower from Dawn.
What’s the connection between the broken food system and supporting a Co-op in your community? Healthy foods free of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics are the rule and not the exception. The question I get a lot from future members is, “What do I get when I join the Co-op?” Here is my chance – I remind them that it is not what you get but what you give to your community that makes a co-op membership so valuable. You give a local farmer the chance to sell all of his produce to a single place so he can use less fuel – he or she can actually spend time farming great produce. You give the planet a chance to heal from unsustainable practices that growers of monoculture are using. You give members of your community a place to meet, chat, see a movie, and take a cooking class. You give thirty or forty members of your community a great paying job with benefits, all centered on delicious healthy food.
I remember having a conversation about the food movement – slow food, organic food, non GMO food – and talking about whether the movement would work if not for the great taste of the food. The truth is that the people involved in the food movement are more inclined to make a great tasting product, raise a great tasting product, and grow a great tasting product. They take stock in how their particular food item not only tastes, but how it affects the environment, how their workers should be treated, how their product may or may not be accessible to all.
I am happy to tell you more about the Co-op and how it has had an incredible effect on me. I am sure that the people that I work with would be happy to do the same. We do not just come to work every day, we feel that the community is united around food and how it creates community.
“Eating with the fullest pleasure – pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance – is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living in a mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.” – Wendell Berry