Toward fair and sustainable food systems: The role of food cooperatives and solidarity grocery stores

Amidst the current multifaceted crises, the contemporary food system struggles to meet everyone’s needs.

The socio-ecological transition demands a reevaluation of its sustainability and a reconfiguration of its components to ensure they are more humane, resilient, and equitable—from production and processing to distribution and consumption. 

This article focuses on food distribution, exploring how solidarity grocery stores and food cooperatives can serve as more transparent alternatives to the multinationals that dominate the markets.

What are solidarity grocery stores and food cooperatives?

Solidarity grocery stores and food cooperatives are community-based stores, created by and for the community, with the aim to provide affordable food. Unlike traditional supermarkets, these stores operate on a nonprofit model that emphasizes democratic management, local engagement, and prioritizing the needs of the people they serve. They are often located in underserved areas, where accessing supplies can be more challenging.

According to Ici Coop, Quebec’s network of food cooperatives, “a cooperative belongs to its members, who are also its users. It aims to maximize their benefits, both as grocery store customers and as local citizens. And in a co-op, all members are equal.” [Free translation] In a co-op, members are entitled to discounts, and can benefit from patronage dividends if the business makes a profit. Members are the heart of the cooperative: they are its reason for existing and operating.

Solidarity grocery stores, on the other hand, are often halfway between large supermarkets and food banks. Territoires innovants en économie sociale et solidaire (TIESS) mentions that “the term ‘solidarity grocery’ is commonly used to define a multitude of grocery store models whose social mission (more or less explicit) is to help reduce social inequalities in food (Gros, 2014) by promoting economic accessibility to healthy, fresh food with dignity“. [Free translation]

Both emphasize the affordability of food, and are in line with the logic of collective reappropriation of food.

What is the impact of food cooperatives and solidarity grocery stores?

Food cooperatives and solidarity grocery stores are more than just places to buy food. They embody solidarity, autonomy, and democracy while contributing to the creation of a fairer, more sustainable, and equitable food systems for everyone. This goal is supported by a tapestry of impactful elemen, including:

  • Redistribution of power: By enabling community members to take an active part in managing and making decisions about their food supply, these grocery stores help redistribute power within the food sector, thereby strengthening community food sovereignty.
  • Accessibility: By making food accessible in underserved or remote areas, these grocery stores help to reduce unequal access to healthy food.
  • Variety and diversity: By offering a range of culturally diverse food options, these grocery stores meet the specific needs of different communities, thus promoting inclusion and cultural diversity.
  • Local sourcing: Many of these grocery stores source from local producers and agricultural cooperatives, thereby supporting the local economy and reducing the carbon footprint associated with food transportation. Some cooperatives, as part of their mission, “maintain producer-friendly buying and selling practices that go beyond those of other retailers”.
  • Affordable prices: By cutting out the middlemen and reducing operational costs, these grocery stores can offer food at affordable prices to community members. Since their focus is not on profit at all costs, they are able to sell food with smaller margins compared to traditional chains.
  • Fair distribution: Solidarity grocery stores and food cooperatives emphasize the fair distribution of food, ensuring that no one is left behind.
  • Social innovation: These initiatives represent an innovative approach to solving social problems, focusing on collaboration, solidarity, and sustainability.

Food sovereignty vs. food security: How grocery stores and cooperatives empower communities

Through their solidarity- and cooperation-based operational models, solidarity grocery stores and food cooperatives are concrete examples of how communities can regain control over their food supply and distribution. This method stands in contrast to traditional approaches to food security, which mainly focus on access to food – without necessarily questioning who controls food distribution. This leads us to a broader and more profound question: what is the difference between food security and food sovereignty? These two concepts are closely related but differ in their approach and objectives:

Food security refers to the physical availability of food, socio-economic and cultural access to nutrition, food assimilation, and the stability of these dimensions over time without compromising people’s health or well-being. This often involves policies and programs aimed at ensuring that no one suffers from hunger or malnutrition. SeedChange states that food security “understands food as a traded commodity and hunger as the result of insufficient production and lack of access”— effectively highlighting a fundamental issue inherent to the conventional understanding of the concept. Recognizing that the definition of food security is evolving, Jennifer Clapp, Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo, argues that it is “time for a formal update to our definition of food security to include two additional dimensions: agency and sustainability”, thus bringing it closer to the concept of food sovereignty.

This invites a closer examination of food sovereignty. It’s important to note that food sovereignty is defined differently by each person, community, and group. The definition offered by Via Campesina, seems to capture the core principles shared by most interpretations of the concept, articulating food sovereignty as the right of peoples to define their own food and agricultural policies. This definition encompasses the protection and regulation of agricultural production and importantly, it recognizes the significance of indigenous food systems -, which go beyond traditional agriculture to include holistic ecosystem management. By highlighting the necessity for communities to take control of their food supply, including through non-agricultural means, food sovereignty emphasizes the need for healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food for all. In a country like Canada, where a few large retailers control the majority of food markets and access to land is difficult, the question of food sovereignty is crucial. 

So where does that leave us? While food security focuses on ensuring that individuals have enough to eat, food sovereignty goes further by seeking to ensure that communities have the power to decide what they produce, consume, and trade within their own territories. By promoting food sovereignty, we aim not only to eliminate hunger but also to build fair, sustainable, and democratic food systems that respect the rights of producers, consumers, and the environment. In this context, solidarity grocery stores and food cooperatives are key players in food sovereignty, enabling communities to reclaim ownership over food distribution—a key component of any food system.  

A few examples of community-based solidarity grocery stores and cooperatives

Fireweed Food Co-op is a non-profit cooperative in Manitoba that champions local, sustainable food producers. It is grounded in the belief that small-scale agriculture plays a critical role in achieving ecological sustainability and aims to mitigate the challenges small farmers face due to the dominance of the globalized food system. By facilitating a broader market for locally produced, sustainable foods—through initiatives like their farmer’s market, the “Veggie Van”, and various food programs—Fireweed enhances the availability of quality food for everyone. Membership in the Fireweed Food Co-op thus becomes an act of support for a stronger, more resilient local food system. The Co-op envisions a regional food system characterized by ecological sustainability, equity, and collaboration, emphasizing the importance of community access to nutritious food. Their commitment to fostering democratic, sustainable, and equitable food systems is articulated through a vision focused on lowering obstacles and broadening community engagement in the local food economy, spanning from production to consumption.

Established in 2015 in Toronto, St. James Town Community Cooperative (SJTC) caters to one of the most diverse communities in the world, focusing on enhancing food security and climate resilience. In a densely populated, low-income neighborhood, home to a majority of newcomers who speak over 140 languages, SJTC fosters food self-reliance. Through its Good Food Buying Club, the OASIS Food Hub, and initiatives aimed at resident capacity building, SJTC strives to increase access to healthy food. These endeavors also fortify social bonds and cultivate a resilient community economy, which is crucial for overcoming employment barriers and elevating the community’s overall well-being. Membership in SJTC allows individuals to actively participate in shaping a future that features a local, resilient, inclusive, and supportive food system.

Ti Frais is a Quebec initiative that aims to make food more accessible to the diverse communities present in its neighborhood, while promoting local products and cultural diversity. This community grocery store will open in spring 2024. Ti Frais intends to offer quality food at affordable prices, meeting the needs of the diverse communities present in the Montreal neighborhood of St-Henri. Founder Dimitri Espérance explains: “At Ti Frais, our mission goes far beyond simply feeding our bodies. We firmly believe in the idea that food is a cultural bridge, a gateway to understanding and celebrating our diversities. Our commitment lies in our desire to democratize cultural access to food, notably by partnering with Quebec farms that specialize in African vegetables.” Ti Frais thus seeks to make its contribution to a fairer, more sustainable food system, emphasizing the importance of access to food for all.


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