Food co-op, urban farms seeding a sustainable food economy

A few weeks ago, Apolo Catala received a phone call from FedCo, a cooperative seed and tree company located in Clinton, Maine. The co-op was trying to save hundreds of fruit trees from landing in the compost heap due to market disruptions caused by COVID-19. As manager of the Oasis urban farm on Ballou Avenue, Catala jumped at the opportunity and drove north the next day. He and several volunteers loaded their truck with 1,000 trees.

Catala distributed every tree in less than a week, gleeful with the knowledge they will provide fruit and shade to Dot residents for years to come. “This was a huge community effort,” he said. “Credit goes to all those organizations and residents who saw the connection between the trees and the needs of the community.”

One of the organizations that stepped up was the Dorchester Food Coop, which invited its 800-plus members to take trees and, if possible, make a donation to support food security.

This is just one success story of many resulting from years of organizing around the idea of creating a healthier, more equitable food economy in Dorchester. Now the food co-op is poised to become a vital retail hub in this dynamic eco-system and fulfill its mission “to establish a worker- and community-owned grocery store that promotes health, racial, and economic equity through a commitment to making healthy food affordable and accessible.”

At the end of 2021, they are slated to open a 6,000- square foot market on the ground floor of an affordable housing development in the Bowdoin Geneva area being built by the Vietnamese American Initiative for Development (VietAID). The store will work with local farms and entrepreneurs, use green business practices, and offer educational programs to community members.

“We’re going to be more than just a store,” says Marcos Beleche, the coop’s board president. “We’re about placemaking, providing residents with a sense of belonging, restoring dignity, and building wealth in communities of color at a time when they’ve had wealth torn away from them.”

Beleche, who is Mexican-American, grew up in a farm worker family that “felt the oppression of the food system.” It’s a system that rests heavily on the backs of low-income workers, disproportionately people of color and immigrants. COVID-19 has placed many of these essential workers at even higher risk because they often work in close proximity to one another without adequate protective equipment.

The co-op offers a viable alternative through an innovative corporate structure that gives power to workers and consumers. Its board of directors is elected by consumer members and its bylaws provide that three board members will be elected by worker-owners. Membership is open to all and costs just $100, a one-time fee that can be paid slowly over time.

The events of the last week have further shown that we cannot simply “reopen the economy” and return to business as usual. Now more than ever, we need to cultivate a sustainable food economy that promotes the dignity of workers and the health and well-being of consumers.

Fortunately, the seeds have already been sown. A thriving network of Dorchester residents and organizations is showing what is possible when we work together and place people over profits.