August update on the development of The Mustard Seed

August 1, 2012 – The second info night for The Mustard Seed at the Hill Street Community Garden began with sharing about our progress to date, followed by a documentary about the Lexington Co-op in Buffalo, NY.

If you are like everyone else we talk to about The Mustard Seed, you are pretty excited that there is a new grocery store opening in Hamilton in the near future – one that prioritizes local and wholesome food. So are we!

The three main questions we keep hearing from Hamiltonians are: 1) Does the co-op already have a location, 2) When will it open, and 3) What are the next steps in the development of The Mustard Seed? If you haven’t been able to make it out to one of our public outreach events yet, no worries (although we’d love to meet you at one of our future events!). We’ll answer all three questions below and include some of the mapping we have been working on based on our market research.

Map of Hamilton indicating the general location of where survey respondents that said they would like to become members of The Mustard Seed live (65% of total respondents). Many others (29%) indicated that they would likely become members depending on parking, cost, etc.

Map of Hamilton indicating locations of existing grocery stores, including 500 metre radiuses around stores. (Yellow = supermarkets; Dark Blue = medium size stores; Light Blue = corner stores; Brown = ethnic groceries)

1. Location?   We’ve analyzed various location choices based on where future members live and work – because we know the closer the store is to where you live or work the better. We have been doing a lot of walking around looking at potential sites, meeting with a realtor, and talking with people who know a lot about Hamilton leases and real estate like the Hamilton Economic Development office. There are a lot of potential sites out there, but so far nothing jumps out as an ideal location. Some of the factors we have been basing this on include proximity to future members, proximity to existing stores, store size, available parking, cost, and if the storefront suits the values of the co-op. Location is so important, and we are investing time and research into finding just the right space for The Mustard Seed.

2. When?  This depends on a lot of factors, but we hope to have the co-op doors open in the next 6-12 months. Most of the food co-ops we have talked with take 2-4 years in the development stage, so this goal is very ambitious – but possible! One of the big reasons for this is that two of us are working more than part-time on co-op development. When you count it all up, we have contributed over 900 volunteer hours to The Mustard Seed’s development since April, so we’ve been able to really leap forward during the last few months. And while we haven’t found a source of funding to-date, we are planning to apply for a few grants early this fall and are hopeful that these applications will provide us with a much needed source of development funding for things like incorporation and legal fees!

3. Next steps?  We have talked to and/or visited nearly 25 food co-ops already, and will continue to do so in the months ahead. While each food co-op is different, we have been able to learn why they chose different governance models, membership types, loan formats, volunteer options, etc. We are working with food security researchers at the University of Toronto to analyze our market survey, and look forward to sharing those results with you. Our next big steps include incorporation of the co-op, completing our business plan, and growing our membership network. At the same time, we will continue to seek out the right site for the store and work on raising funds.

Members of the Steering Committees for The Mustard Seed and Our Community Food Store, a food co-op in development in St. Catharines, meet to exchange ideas.

Want to help us on this journey? One big way you can help is by telling your friends about this cooperative initiative – which means liking us on facebook, tweeting about us, and linking our blog to your website, as well as by spreading the news by word-of-mouth, of course! In addition, we are looking for people to come alongside us with practical skills:

  • Photojournalism including interviewing local farmers and producers
  • Retail grocery experience
  • Co-op development or board experience
  • Marketing and promotions, including Twitter
  • Branding expertise
  • Event organizing
  • Fund raising:  grant writing, membership campaigns, or personal donations if you would like to help us with development of the co-op, but are not able to volunteer your time right now.

If you have any of these skills and would like to join us, please let us know! The more help we have in the development stage, the sooner The Mustard Seed’s doors will open!

Responsible trade: Is the local food movement part of the answer?

A very evocative image from the cover of Empires of Food by Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas.

Recently there has been a heated debate in the media about whether local food movement is really a good thing. This recent Maclean’s article reviewed The Locavore’s Dilemma by Canadian economists Desrochers and Shimiz.  The authors argue that the focus on local food production and consumption is actually a threat to our economy, environment, and personal health.  Instead, industrialization and specialization in the food system hold the keys to a more abundant, affordable, and safer diet.

I (Graham) recently read Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations by another Canadian, Evan Fraser, and co-author Andrew Rimas.  The book recounts the historical experience of societies dependent on imperial food systems.  Some patterns they point out are particularly relevant to the current debate about local food and offer real insight into the larger justice issues that have motivated us to start a food cooperative.

Advanced civilizations are the direct result of food surpluses. If food is scarce, it’s hard work to get it and there’s no time left for creating art, talking politics, or writing books on economics.  So any culture that has developed advanced complexities has had access to ample food — someone’s surplus.  That surplus is likely locally produced originally, but chances are, as the society evolves and grows in population and wealth, those surpluses come from further afield through trade. Empires tells some remarkable stories of how this trade has shaped various complex societies: the wheat freighters hauling Egyptian grain to feed Rome’s million residents, the British East India Company bringing tea, cotton, etc. to Europe, the Dutch monopoly on nutmeg, and the American trade in corn.  But what if those producing the food surplus can’t produce it for the price the traders need, or demand?

The history of food trading is marred by serious patterns of exploitation and market manipulation. African slaves fuelled American and Caribbean agricultural production for generations.  The Opium Wars forced drug trade onto China, and whole Pacific island cultures were exterminated in order to provide low-cost spices.  Even today, with all the technological advances in modern food production, the human producers of industrial food are often the least remunerated: migrant workers in California or Canada (where it’s legal to pay up to 15% less to migrant workers than Canadians), tenant farmers in South America or Africa, Indians indebted to multinational suppliers.

Stalled corn is displayed on a farm in Geff, Illinois on Monday, July 16, 2012. 53-year-old farmer David White says he has never experienced such extreme drought. Little rain and long lasting heat has dried up his acres forcing him to declare this year a “total loss.” (AP Photo/Robert Ray)

Specialization in agricultural production achieves some impressive efficiencies, but it also means that a trading region, or country, is vulnerable to fluctuation in prices, bad weather, or other ill forces beyond producers’ control. What happens when bad weather is widespread, like this summer’s drought that’s affecting two-thirds of the US and much of Canada, or the excessive rain falling throughout England?  What if economic shocks spike prices and borders close to the rice trade, like India experienced in 2008?  What would happen if these events happened at simultaneously?

Empires isn’t about doomsday scenarios, but does suggest a sort of “glocalism”, promoting diversified production and consumption of local foods, while responsibly trading foodstuffs to avoid exploitation of distant producers.  Utopian, some may suggest, but perhaps no more so than trusting the Market to provide adequate food for all.

We believe this discussion points to why we need The Mustard Seed in Hamilton: we’ll responsibly source whatever we can from local producers, while ensuring the bounty of distant farms enriches life on both sides of the trade.

Our first community event!

On Saturday night, 50 Hamiltonians gathered in the Hill St. Community Garden for The Mustard Seed’s first official community event.  With gorgeous weather in our favour and July 7 being the International Day of Cooperatives, it was the perfect evening to get to know each other and to celebrate!

The Mustard Seed’s progress to date!

After some great conversation, we gave a brief presentation about the cooperative movement and The Mustard Seed’s vision and progress to date.  By that time, it was getting just dark enough to watch To Make a Farm, an inspiring yet realistic documentary following the lives of 5 young Canadians who embark on making their farming dreams a reality.  For the farmers in the crowd, the stories of joy and struggle rang very true!

A beautiful evening under the stars – thanks to all who came out to celebrate and give us feedback on The Mustard Seed’s future!

We asked people to map out where they live and where they work, and can use this feedback in future decisions about where the store will be. We plan to bring this map to future events.