Wednesday, November 18, 2015

It's been a long time coming…(my religion).

Lawrence University Chapel at Bjorklunden, Wisconsin.
Not too long ago, a friend of mine described the Sugar Beet Food Co-op as my "church".  Soon after, another friend jumped in and called it my "place of worship."  Tickled, I was delighted that folks around town are demonstrating kindness, companionship, support, and celebration over my own positivity about our food co-op, the first of it's kind in our area.  I got to thinking about how apt this description is. 
 If I were to ally myself with any group of ideologies or religions, I suppose it would be the Secular Humanists, in which I believe that human beings (myself included) are capable of being moral and ethical without the rulings of a supreme being or faith community. (This post has no intent to embark on a conversation about the merits of organized religion/or not).  The fact that I'm not religious doesn't escape the view of my bestie, and of course, it makes it easier to apply this idea that my religion is the co-op.
What I got to thinking about is the similarity between my faith in the co-op and a religious community.  After all, if the place of worship is our new Sugar Beet store, is not it fair to define what my faith is?
It's quite possible, even probable, that the religion that I adhere to is one which is much more universal, or global, than what is immediately presented to a congregant who enters our new co-op.  So what is my Faith found in co-operatives?  This is a beginning, and I've included images from some of my foundational faith system (those places which have nurtured my ideas about faith and renewal) : 

Sundance Foods, Eugene, OR
  • Food system politics: small, local producers are good for the economy, good for communities of producers, ethical production is worthwhile.
  • Good food: the more salt and msg and artificial sweeteners, the further we go from health and our ability to enjoy basic nutrients found in whole foods.
  • Small is good: I hope I don't have to argue the devastating effects of chain stores, box stores, and their impact on climates, community centers, and the ability for people to have diverse employment and production experiences.
  • Local ownership, shared input & decision making: an old adage *the personal is political* or *the biggest political impact we can have is local*.
  • Food from scratch is good (Slow Food): the slow food movement reminds us that when we create something that takes time, it delivers psychic, health, and community benefits.  We must slow down.
  • Hippie Health food stores from the seventies were a good thing that inspired so much (see WF and Walmart & Costco organics) we owe something to those foundations: Whenever I get to talking to a Midwesterner who didn't grow up around hippy health food stores I'm all the more thankful for what we had in Eugene, even though my parents were largely middle of the road taste profiles.  That said, we benefited from the overfill of bulk containers, fresh veggies, varied restaurant experiences, and everything that i could find out in the world when I jumped on my bike.  We owe the small store trying it's best a giant payback.  Small, hand written signage, friendly staff, even dirty produce (dirt don't hurt)….know where it all came from!
  • Building community through food/grocery experiences: Community.  Community. Community. We do it very well in Oak Park, this is another avenue for that connectivity, and it circles back to what we put in our bodies, and what we share with our guests.
  • Employees are important and deserve independence, camaraderie, supportive, and non-bully style leadership: I love going in to a store and not following a script with an employee.  I love the give and take of chatting with someone who works at a small, local venue. 

Sundance Foods
  • Best practices in production: The Sundance website uses a phrase that I really like, which is, that the store acts as a "gatekeeper" for the shoppers value system.  Food politics are so difficult, and nobody's hands are ever entirely clean, but I feel proud to support an endeavor in which the organization is doing it's best to honor ethical practices, from production to selling.
  • Access: everybody should be able to be a part of the organization as members, owners, community members, shoppers, employees.
  • Process: thoughtful about how and why things happen.  This is not a bottom line endeavor. There are many factors that shape every decision.
  • Community activism and support of progressive and green causes: The co-op is involved in the greater community and finding alignment with its mission and values.

Sundance Foods
Fort Collins Food Co-op
Fort Collins Food Co-op
So that's a bulleted list of how I might describe my faith.  If the Sugar Beet is, in fact, my place of worship, then it begs the question how does my church fulfill my religion?  It's a new place, and we're in the very early stages of building our community around an actual storefront, rather than a virtual store, as I would describe the past three-plus years.  People often help to build a place of worship, in which they plan to congregate with their community, and sometimes the place itself strays from individual's sense of what the faith and what the church must honor.

 Sometimes congregants attend a church because it is the nearest to what they hope their church should deliver, although not exactly as they would design.

Sometimes there is a falling out and someone chooses to not attend any church at all, if the organization has strayed too far from what is perceived to be the faith.

Willie Street Co-op, Madison, WI 
So, I return to my own proselytizing about the Sugar Beet Co-op.  We are very young, we are working very hard to keep in mind the foundations of our belief system.  We are also a real store in a real economic zone. Not everyone in our community knows what they want from a co-op, or even what a co-op might be.  There is much building to be done.  I'm so excited because I see nothing but possibility in what this entity can offer us in this community, which, until now, has lacked sorely in food democracy and small storefronts offering vibrant, local, whole food.  We are young, fresh, and new enough to provide shaping to what it is we would like to see it be. And,  there's probably not one of our congregants who does not hold in mind parts of our daily practice that might or should be altered and shifted.  Great thing about our Co-op, of course, is that there are many ways to become involved and feel a part of something bigger.  Come in to the Co-op, check it out, buy things, talk to the fabulous, energetic, employees.  Meet our General Manager who has brought a wealth of Natural Food store experience to Oak Park.  Attend board meetings, talk to board members, join the board, attend or lead a class.  Host meetings at the Beet. You can often spot our founder and current Marketing Maven, Project Leader, and all things fabulous, Cheryl Munoz who is more than willing to share fabulous food and meal ideas, progressive food/industry ideas, and suggestions for a Better Beet.

Old Time True Believer spotted on the road.
It's really easy to get caught up in the now, but I'm a big believer in looking back to the things that we remember fondly and build upon what we have today.  This old Toyota pick-up, rusty and smattered with well-loved and remembered bumper stickers, is an exemplar of bridging hippy health food from yesterday with the current movement to make food systems more progressive, more thoughtful, more real.

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