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Economic Alternatives

Woman holding breadAlternative Food Systems

Food production and purchasing are major parts of our monetary economy. Because food is one of the basic necessities of life it was one of the first items to be traded and bartered in early economies. Today, the trade of food is increasingly removed from both those who produce the food and those who consume it. Most farmers don't have a chance to meet the people who eat their food. And most of us don't know the farmers who grow our food. In fact, most of us have little idea what path the food we consume travels before it reaches our mouths. Instead we find ourselves in grocery stores where the food that looks the most like the form in which it was produced (like fruits and vegetables) seems to cost a lot more than the highly-processed foods that have been through various factories, shipping yards, and been traded on who knows how many markets.

Many of us have developed our own systems that provide us with quality food at affordable prices. We bake our own bread, we buy seasonal produce and freeze it to last through the winter months, we buy in bulk, we can and preserve, and we garden. There are many ways that we can participate in re-introducing economies that provide us with nutritious, quality food that is good for the earth, at costs we can afford. Here's a few other alternative food systems.

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1. Good Food Box
The Good Food Box is a wholesale buying program which supplies members with a box of food about once a month. Members usually pay $10 at the beginning of the month when money is more available, and receive their box closer to the end of the month when funds tend to be tighter. Most Good Food Boxes contain fresh fruit and vegetables although there are other variations. While members never know exactly what fruit and vegetables they will receive each month, they do know that they will receive more food than the same money would buy at the grocery store because they are buying wholesale. They also know that the food will be top quality, nutritious, and that as much of it as possible will be in-season and local. That means it will taste better too! To read about one Good Food Box program visit Toronto Good Food Box.

2. Food Buying Clubs
Food buying clubs or food cooperatives are formed by groups of people who purchase bulk food directly from wholesalers. Because they have pooled their resources people are able to buy food at lower prices and they may also be able to access items that they can't find at their local stores, such as organic products. Food buying clubs exist all over the world and anyone can start one. All you need to do is find some friends and neighbours who are interested in participating in the club, decide what foods you want, look for suppliers, and you're ready to make your first order.

Woman holding cauliflour3. Community Gardens
Community gardens offer not only food but an opportunity for urban dwellers to participate in food production even if they don't have their own yards in which to do so. Community gardens are found all over the world. Many are located in abandoned lots or unused public spaces with gardening boxes built from recycled wood. Community gardens make neighbourhoods look good and provide food and pleasure. Some urban gardeners go further by participating in 'guerrilla gardening' - taking over public places for production of food and beauty. If you want to be a guerrilla gardener all you need is a package of seeds. Sunflower seeds are a great guerrilla gardening 'weapon.' Wander around your neighbourhood and look for spots where plants might grow. Put the seeds in the ground and come back in a few months in search of flowers.

4. Community Shared Agriculture (CSAs)
Community Shared Agriculture programs provide city dwellers with a box full of fresh, quality, seasonal produce direct from a local farm every week during the growing season. CSA members buy shares early in the season and thereby assume part of the farmer's risk. If the weather is good, the harvest is plentiful but if there is drought, flooding, hail or an early freeze, amounts are lesser. But the risk is worth it for many people in exchange for the thrill of being able to talk to the people growing their food. This direct contact breaks down the distance between producer and consumer building better relationships between urban and rural people. And because produce is picked the day it is delivered, it tastes much better than food that has travelled weeks to get to the store. Again, costs are lower because the food has passed through fewer hands. CSAs benefit farmers, too, by allowing them to have smaller farms that are much better for the environment yet still profitable. And for many farmers, providing food for eager neighbours is far more satisfying than shipping it off to the nearest food depot.

5. Community Kitchens
Also called Cooking Clubs or Shared Kitchens, Community Kitchens are opportunities for people to cook and eat together. Community Kitchens in Canada were inspired by women cooking together in Central and South America. Today there are about 10,000 comedores populares serving up healthy meals to about three million people in cities all over Peru. In Canada, most Community Kitchens meet regularly with the same group of people and many have a specific focus whether single people cooking for one, vegetarian, new immigrants, cooking for people with diabetes, or families cooking for young children. Many Community Kitchens cook a large enough amount of food that members can bring one or more meals home with them to freeze and eat later. Community Kitchens provide inspiration and ideas for those who are tired of cooking at home and opportunities for participants to learn food preparation skills from each other. They help busy people find time to cook nutritious food and again, because Community Kitchens purchase large quantities of food they help people to get more for less. To read about one Community Kitchen project visit Vancouver Community Kitchen.

6. Community Stores
While community stores were a part of our communities several decades ago, today most of us shop for food at large and extra-large chain grocery stores. While we may get to know a few cashiers or the meat counter staff we have little idea who is receiving the profits of our purchases. Most of the profit generated by our purchases probably ends up in large corporations with headquarters far from where we live. Community stores and independently-owned larger grocery stores do still exist and need our support. Locally-owned stores are more inclined to consider the health of their neighbours rather than simply their own profit. For example, Neechi Foods Community Store in Winnipeg's North End is the only food store in Manitoba that chooses not to sell cigarettes. The store also sells fruit to children at cost encouraging kids to spend their dimes and nickels on apples and bananas rather than pop and chips. Take a walk through your neighbourhood and visit your community stores. Talk to the people who work there and learn how they are contributing to the health of your community.

7. Regional Initiatives
In many places in Northern Canada, people can pay between 30 and 300% more to buy healthy foods. Many traditional food systems have been lost due to colonization and companies using the land to extract oil and hydro electricity. Recently, freezer purchasing programs, vegetable garden groups, and regional food security committees have been initiated by residents who want to reclaim food traditions and access local and healthier food. For information on Northern Manitoba food security, see Food Matters Manitoba.

How can I be involved?
The programs mentioned above are happening in small corners all over the world, though sometimes we have to dig a little to hear about them. Enquire in your community about alternative food programs happening near you. If you can't find what you're after, start your own program. You will be contributing to your own, your family's and your community's health as well as the health and sustainability of the earth and you will feel better because of it.


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