Building Food Sovereignty in Central Brooklyn
by Raina Kennedy
For the last year I, along with a whole group of active and dedicated organizers, have been working to open a black-led food co-op in Central Brooklyn (generally defined as the Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods). Though I have been on staff for a year many of my fellow organizers have been working on this project for several years and it has been amazing to work on a project with such a solid foundation. While I am currently well-versed in food systems issues and alternative community food possibilities, it wasn’t all that long ago that I assumed food co-ops and the like simply weren’t for me. The phrase “food co-op” often brings to mind a certain type of person: usually white, mostly affluent, definitely a fan of “ancient grains.” But in the simplest definition of the term, a food co-op is a place where people can go to buy their groceries that is owned and operated by community members. Central Brooklyn, while rapidly gentrifying, still remains home to a large Black population, many of whom are low-to-moderate income, and many of whom are long-term residents. It seems as though every other week a new café, restaurant or bar opens up – but where are the affordable grocery stores? And more importantly, who is welcome and who feels comfortable in these shiny new food spaces?
The Central Brooklyn Food Co-Op aims to be active in the fight against this “food apartheid," which is a term used by many food activists to describe disparities in food access that encompasses the whole food system and focuses on social inequalities. Anyone who wants to join our organizing efforts must first attend an orientation, where they will view a short presentation on our history and mission. In the past, I had never been part of a food project that took such care to explain the historical context that necessitated the project. In this presentation, we discuss the history of cooperative practices in African-American communities (as detailed in Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s book Collective Courage). Though I’d discovered the book shortly before joining the co-op efforts, I hadn’t known about this history and I was and am proud to be able to continue that tradition.
While we remain rooted in our community we also know the importance of connecting with like-minded groups around the country. The Central Brooklyn Food Co-Op is part of the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, a coalition of black-led groups fighting for food sovereignty and food justice. In January, we attended the NBFJA’s first-ever Grocery Co-Op Convening, where other black food co-op groups gathered in Jackson, MS, for a weekend. There is much about that weekend that will stay with me but one thing I constantly think about is our conversations about healing.
Healing from lifetimes and generations of oppression and violence takes many forms and one of these can be reshaping and rebuilding community. Food is the perfect avenue. While we do of course aim to provide affordable food to the low-to-moderate income residents of Central Brooklyn, I think we also aim to fundamentally shift people’s relationships to their community. Opening a food co-op run for and by community members means keeping money circulating within the neighborhood. It means developing sourcing relationships with farmers who are people of color and who use environmentally responsible growing practices. It means developing partnerships with like-minded organizations: worker co-ops, credit unions, neighborhood associations, and more – to continue building an economically and racially just society. It also means committing oneself to unlearning the ways that capitalism and institutionalized racism have burrowed into our collective consciousness. No work environment is perfect, and it might sound cheesy but I feel truly blessed to be able to work with people who share the same vision and who are committed to putting more power into the hands of more people.
The Next Step
Though we do not yet have a physical location, we are building a strong base. A co-op is only as strong as its members, after all! The year that I have been a part of the effort has seen a growth in our organizing membership and we’re on the path to begin accepting member investments (in the working-member food co-op model that we’re using, all members must pay a one-time investment fee and then commit to working a set 2-3 hour shift each month. This will keep our overhead costs low and allow us to provide affordable food for the neighborhood!). We have outreach events planned for the summer and will begin the search for real estate. I’m excited about the future of this project and about the work we have done thus far and will continue to do, especially on days when it seems that the world is falling apart around us. Team work makes the dream work!
Raina is the Food Sovereignty Organizer at the Brooklyn Movement Center, where she manages the Central Brooklyn Food Co-Op organizing process. She is passionate about food justice, cooperatives and fresh produce. In addition to working at BMC, she is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Food Studies at New York University. Learn more about the CBFC by visiting https://www.cbfood.org.