Fast forward

In the “hourglass” model of our food system, a smaller and smaller number of bigger and bigger companies control most of what we eat.

Two weeks ago, the first week of the COVID-19 ramp-down of so many of the systems that keep our modern world functioning, was our best sales week ever at our little local food co-op. Until last week.

Last week was even better. For the first time since we opened our storefront five and a half years ago, we met the sales goal that marks our break-even point. If we could average this level of sales year-round, we’d be solvent.

A month ago we weren’t thinking about solvency. We were thinking about survival, and wondering whether we could raise enough money to keep the doors open for a few months longer while we made one more attempt to get out of the financial hole we keep sliding into as long as our expenses – already pared pretty close to the bone – keep outweighing our revenue.

That we’re now in so much stronger a position is not just due to COVID-19 panic-buying, or even to the many newcomers to the store who seem to be seeking out smaller-scale alternatives to big supermarkets in this uncertain moment. We’re still in business and able to re-stock our nearly-empty shelves because close to a hundred members and other supporters donated money to an emergency fundraising campaign and our board re-committed to continuing to raise a realistic level of funds to offset our projected sales shortfalls.

Ironically, though, the timing of all this couldn’t have been better. Our newly-restocked shelves skew heavily toward the locally-sourced items that our inventory is centered around. Just as more people are looking for sustenance from closer to home, we’re able to provide it.

All this has got me thinking about timelines and trajectories in our food system. For the past hundred years, supermarkets have seemed like the future. They’ve gotten larger and larger, with longer hours and huge footprints, merging with existing megastores to create “hypermarkets” and moving online with the promise of groceries magically delivered to your door with just a touch of your phone screen.

Little food stores with limited stock and shorter supply chains have seemed like the past, unable to offer one-stop convenience or to match the prices enabled by businesses that operate on a gigantic scale. But nearly anyone involved in the leadership of a food co-op shares the sense that we’re actually building something for an increasingly uncertain future, not trying to replicate some bucolic moment from a small-town past.

The giant supermarket chains are currently fighting hard to keep their lion’s share of the market and to support the perception that they represent a shiny and sustainable future. But anyone who looks at a map of where our food comes from knows that this isn’t truly sustainable. It’s all eventually trending toward a smaller and smaller number of bigger and bigger companies controlling more and more of the food system. That’s incredibly short-sighted, and when we hit a moment of crisis, as we’re doing now, more and more people seem to recognize that, and to be seeking out alternatives.

For the past couple of weeks, it’s felt as though we’ve actually fast-forwarded into the future that we’ve been building toward at our co-op. There are still lots of ways that COVID-19 could have a much more negative impact on our business and our community, and we’re trying to think ahead about those as best we can. But in the short term, we’re catching our breath as our cash flow approaches something close to adequate and pondering the strangeness of having put something in place before we truly needed it, so that now when we do, it’s already here.





4 months ago

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