Southwest co-ops leaders in fair trade

It’s hard to deny that being environmentally and culturally conscious is chic right now. Celebrities are seen driving eco-friendly hybrids, and large chain stores are carrying organic food and
clothing.

The best aspect of this trend is that people are finding ways to make an impact that don’t take too much time or money. Take, for example, buying groceries. It’s something almost everyone does — but if those groceries are fair trade certified or from nearby farms, it’s also an easy way to help local and international
communities.

Standard grocery stores usually have a limited selection of these items, but Southwest Minneapolis has two grocery co-ops committed to offering a wide variety of local and fair trade goods.   

But what is a co-op besides just a grocery store that asks you if you’re a member when you’re in the checkout line? The International Cooperative Alliance’s “Statement of Cooperative Identity” defines a co-op as “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise.” Though co-ops vary in type (everything from grocery stores to hardware suppliers and day care centers) and membership size, they were formed to meet and adapt to members’ needs.

Equality and solidarity are taken into consideration, and social responsibility is a key part of Southwest’s co-op tradition.

The idea behind fair trade is simple: Food — commonly coffee, cocoa and wine, among other things — is purchased from marginalized workers in order to help them move from a vulnerable state of production to a position of self-sufficiency. Instead of struggling to stay afloat, the workers can become stakeholders in their organizations and play a wider role in achieving global equity.

The Wedge Community Co-op at 2105 Lyndale Ave. S. is a leader in the fair trade and local food movements. The first certified organic store in Minnesota, it takes an active role in promoting fair trade as much as possible, said Wedge Research and Development Coordinator Barth Anderson.

During “Fair Trade Month” in the fall, a panel of local and international farmers went to the co-op to explain how a worldwide fair food system makes for better living conditions all over the world. Leonardo Bravo, a banana farmer and co-op member from Ecuador, eagerly expressed through a translator how communities are saved by fair trade. Farmers earn living wages, he explained, so they can stay with and support their families, who in turn support the community. Some farmers in Ecuador who don’t earn fair trade wages must emigrate to make enough money to support their loved ones.

The Wedge also commandeered one of the first domestic fair trade programs in the country. The idea behind domestic fair trade is to offer food from smaller nearby farms and co-ops. These farms produce top-quality goods, but the farmers can’t afford to sell their food at the same rate as larger agribusiness-minded companies from Southern states.

The Wedge’s first fair trade business partner was the White Earth Land Recovery Project. Under the name Native Harvest, the White Earth Land Recovery Project sells wild rice that is hand-harvested from lakes in Northern Minnesota. Unlike larger food distribution companies, it is dedicated to the preservation of its food source and stays away from machine harvesters and fungicides.

The Wedge is planning more partnerships with producers in the future, but in the meantime, a group called the Local Fair Trade Network is bringing the concept of fair trade a little closer to home for multiple Twin Cities co-ops.

Linden Hills Co-op representative Jeanne Lakso said one of the easiest ways to incorporate local farmers was to work with the Local Fair Trade Network to ensure that area farmers have good working conditions and are fairly compensated.

Many locally produced goods are also available at Linden Hills Co-op, located at 2813 W. 43rd St. The list changes frequently based on the season and availability of products but includes dozens of frozen foods, meats, produce, breads and dairy products.

The Wedge and Linden Hills give preference to products that are competitively priced, organic, minimally packaged and additive-free, and distributed by sustainable, ethical co-ops. In that way, the food isn’t just benefiting the growers; it’s benefiting the buyers as well. And that’s an idea that plenty of people can get behind.