When I finished up my academic year on the eastern side of Massachusetts this spring and settled in to work on summer projects closer to home on the western side, I found that something had shifted in how I was thinking about my volunteer work as a board member for my local food co-op.
I got into the grocery business because I was looking for a way to apply what I’d learned over the past decade or so about how our food system works, how it got to be the way it is, and why it seems so hard to change. At the time, I didn’t see this as “getting into the grocery business” at all. I imagined I would stay mostly on the organizational side, doing board development and community outreach and other things that the non-profit arts and educational world had equipped me for.
Instead, I’ve gotten pulled all the way into the day-to-day struggles at our small store, which focuses on selling locally- and regionally-sourced (i.e. not cheap) food in a low-income rural area. Forget the public education piece – I spend the great majority of my time talking with people about money, or rather, lack of money. I had every intention of staying aloof from nuts-and-bolts things like the cash register system and the scary room with the freezer compressors in it. But there are a lot of pieces in the overall financial viability puzzle that we’re trying to solve, and keeping the store going has meant really learning how they fit together.
This little store will absorb as much volunteer time as anyone could possibly throw at it, and for my first couple of summers as a board member, I was trying to draw some clear boundaries between the co-op’s money woes and my real work – writing, prepping new classes, other professor things. But this spring things felt different. The co-op has gone from being an extra to something that feels much more like it is my real work. I think it might have had to do with that UN report that came out in early May about how quickly species extinction is accelerating as humans continue to treat our beautiful home planet like a bottomless shopping bag. The worse the climate news gets, the more important it feels to be at work rebuilding smaller-scale, more accountable systems, including ones we can depend on for food.
This heightening sense of urgency has made the gap between the big-context history-and-theory part of my food systems work and the day-to-day why-did-the-freezers-quit part feel uncomfortably wide. And while I don’t begrudge all the time spent with spreadsheets, I also miss sorting out my thoughts in writing. So I’m going to use this space to turn some of my learning about the utter lunacy of the grocery business into some short-form pieces that might bring theory and practice a little closer together. We’ll see where it goes.