As a co-operative, Common Ground tries to maintain a balance between making a profit and achieving social goals, which we enunciate as our four Ends. Our fourth End states: “Our local food system is equitable, robust and environmentally sound.” The co-op remains committed to this work, but in the absence of a coherent and adequate federal response, we now need to ask you to dig deeper and do everything you can to help support small businesses here in Champaign-Urbana and in Central Illinois.
Farmers, in particular, need our support as we come into harvest time. They have spent their money on fixed costs already. They need to sell what they’ve raised now in order to make it to the next growing season. Federal policy focuses on supporting grain and fiber crops like corn, soy & cotton. There is no crop insurance for farmers who raise produce, meat & dairy. We have to buy their goods for them to pay their workers, make their own living and prepare for next year. The next couple of months could make the difference between getting by or failing for these small businesses that make up the core of our local food system.
My family has changed its shopping habits this year to try and maximize the impact of our dollars. I’m sure much of this will be old hat to many of you, but these changes have not been difficult to make, have improved our lives, and hopefully made a small difference for the income of farmers & other local food producers. First, I’ve committed to shopping regularly on Saturday mornings to coincide with Urbana’s Market at the Square. By itself, this has had a positive impact, since this weekly routine has made it easier to judge how much fresh food to buy, so we’re wasting less. This has also allowed us to get by with one small midweek trip to the co-op for milk and other sundries, which has also been valuable for minimizing our potential exposure to COVID-19.
I shop in a specific order, buying as much as I can from each source and letting the rest of my shopping list cascade to the next store. First, I go to the farmers’ market. I had gone only once or twice a season in previous years, but one of my fellow board members prompted me to go regularly this spring, for which I’m grateful. As much as the co-op values our relationship with our local vendors, we can’t pass through 100 cents on the dollar. Buying directly from producers, especially in cash, ensures that they get the best price for their goods. Getting outside in the mornings before the heat of the day sets in and seeing other people in a relatively safe environment has been good for my mental health in these strange days. It’s also had a good effect on our diet. It turns out that when you have the ingredients for salads prepped and ready to go in the fridge, you eat more salads.
Next, I go to Common Ground. Generally, I try to buy the vast majority of our produce, dairy, and meat from the farmer’s market and the co-op, since these are the areas where our spending makes the greatest impact and we get the largest gains in terms of taste & quality, particularly with fruits & vegetables. However, I buy more dry goods from the co-op every year, particularly as Field Day, a house brand from our main supplier, UNFI, has proven to be quite competitive with organic house brands from other grocery stores. Finally, I go to another grocery store to finish up our shopping list. Our four-year old son has thankfully proven to be an adventurous eater, but woe betide me if we run out of Goldfish. There are also places I’ve stopped shopping in order to focus our spending where it will do the most good. As much as we like the University Meat Lab, it has institutional support to help it through this crisis that Triple S Farms does not.
As I read back, I see how lucky we are with many aspects of our life that enable me to take this approach. My wife and I have been able to work from home and maintain our income, with understanding employers who appreciate that our son needs a big chunk of our time & energy. We also have a reliable car, Monday-Friday work schedules that give me enough free time to shop this way without having to drag a child through a store full of distractions, enough experience and interest in the kitchen to cook from scratch (though we also regularly rely on easy meals out of the freezer), and enough room in our budget and space in our kitchen to stock up and take advantage of sales. All of this adds up to enough stability to make plans; lack of stability & predictability is one of the implicit ways that poverty taxes the lives of poor people. The question for those of us who are fortunate to have plenty in these strange days is how we can best employ our resources. All of us bring a different budget and a different mixture of constraints & preferences to this question. I encourage you to do everything you can according to your own lights.
The federal government has not recognized that the public health crisis has to be under control before the economic crisis can be solved and that households & small businesses need direct support all the way through the emergency until it’s genuinely safe for everyone to go back to work. This seems unlikely to change for the rest of the year, so what can we do right now? Supporting local restaurants is key, as Rosemary Ferrara wrote so eloquently. Charitable giving will also be vital. Common Ground’s owners donated over $3,200 to the Eastern Illinois Foodbank in June through our Round Up for Good program. The Foodbank will be a keystone for our community’s capacity to feed hungry families as we go into the fall and winter. The co-op is also working in conjunction with Cunningham Township to support the Channing-Murray Foundation’s Bucket Brigade program, which delivers “food, supplies, and ready-made meals to the households in C-U who need it most.” If you donate to this program via Common Ground, we will match your donations through the end of August with the goal of raising $5,000.
If there was ever a time to give until it hurts, 2020 is the year. Our country is experiencing levels of unemployment we haven’t seen since the Great Depression. The need everywhere is overwhelming, but charitable donations are not the only tool you have. Your household budget can also make a difference. We have a remarkable local food system here in Central Illinois, but we need to choose to put our money into that system in order to keep it intact for years to come. You’re also going to get some great tomatoes out of the deal. I hope to see you at the farmers’ market.
Full Disclosure: Michael Feltes is a current member of the Board of Directors at Common Ground Food Co-Op.