March 5, 2020
For many, 2012 proved to be a massive breakthrough in the grocery shopping world as the bulk-buying, super-sized Costco warehouse made its way to Coralville. But for local and organic shoppers, the arrival was a nightmare.
Stores like Costco that source from all over the world contribute to a massive carbon footprint. Like many businesses, most large corporations are owned by shareholders. Since shareholders generally don’t all live in one area, money produced by Costco does not return to one singular community.
For this reason, Erin McCuskey, the customer service lead at New Pioneer Food Co-op, believes that shopping at stores which provide locally-produced products is crucial to invest in community businesses.
“I realized a long time ago that protecting the food shed is a really important part of our mission,” said McCuskey. “Protecting the food shed means providing a store so people can sell their local goods.”
New Pioneer has played an active role in the Iowa City area for over 40 years, providing a place where people can buy locally sourced products. A common misbelief is that organic products are superior to local ones, resulting in many people disregarding products unless they possess the highly coveted “Certified Organic” label.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, becoming a certified organic producer is a process that typically takes at least three years and thousands of dollars—something that is not always feasible for small farmers.
“It is more important to be a marketplace for local goods over a marketplace for organic goods,” said McCuskey, noting that a lot of the products they sell are organic, even though they may not be certified.
“I think there are a lot of people around town who want to ensure that we can feed our families from some of the richest soil from west of the Nile,” said McCuskey. “And mostly, we’re using the soil for soda and gasoline and to send it somewhere else.”
With stores in the area offering comparable goods at a lesser price, consumers are faced with a dilemma: buy the cheaper products, or support the sustainability of the community. For those who choose to shop at stores like New Pioneer, they are making the decision to pay a price that reflects the fruits of its labor.
“Our pricing reflects the reality of what it costs to eat whole food,” said McCuskey. “It’s cool that you want to get your case of avocados at Costco for like, 99 cents apiece. I totally get it— I would want that too, myself. But that isn’t actually sustainable because avocados are farmed far away and [the low price] is being subsidized by poor labor practices.”
The Grinnell Heritage Farm, a small farm owned by Andrew Dunham and his family in Grinnell, Iowa, sells their products at New Pioneer and other locations in the area. From their perspective, factors like poor labor practices are detrimental for farmers like themselves who can’t compete with the low costs associated with unsustainable methods.
“One of the downsides to just looking at the checkout cost of food, like at Trader Joe’s or Costco, is that there’s so many external costs that are either subsidized by taxpayer money or pollution that is being emitted that is not being accounted for, or health effects that aren’t even being accounted for,” said Dunham.
In the end, the mission for the New Pioneer’s of the world is to support the community, but in a time where it has become all too easy to buy from businesses that source from all over the world, this has proven to be difficult.
“What’s important for the future of food production is on a state level perpetuating monetizing healthy soil, and then rewarding people for staying here and making food,” McCuskey said.
Avoiding commercial products at all costs is not a reality, but McCuskey still believes that people should be making as much of an effort as they can afford.
In this situation, the power is truly vested in the decisions community members make.
“You get to vote three times a day at least. So every time you spend money on something, you’re saying that you approve of everything that goes into that product,” Dunham said. “And so if you don’t want to have confinement hogs, then you have to stop buying confinement hog products.”