Paulette Dunn of Loaves & Fishes, Caroline Robertson of Greer Relief, and Cindy Simpler of Greer Community Ministries are working together in this mission that started with a discussion at the monthly Greer Non-profit Roundtable meeting. At one of those meetings, the topic of food pantries and families in need took central focus. There are so many families with food insecurity and area charities do not offer great solutions. Families can get food from Greer Relief once every three months or from Greer Community Ministries once every six months, but that only provides emergency assistance. It is certainly not a regular, reliable source of food to families who are not able to purchase enough food to meet their basic needs.
Caroline suggested that the group read “Toxic Charity” by Robert D. Lupton and schedule a visit to the Georgia Food Cooperative/Urban Recipe to explore the idea of a food co-op as a feasible solution to the issues in Greer. After seeing a successful cooperative in action, Paulette, Caroline and Cindy decided to move forward with a pilot program. Loaves & Fishes would supply the food; Greer Relief would supply the Program Director; Greer Community Ministries would provide the space, and current clients of both Greer Relief and Greer Community Ministries would be the first invited to join.
An interest meeting at Greer Community Ministries took place in February with about 20 households attending. Attendees were invited to come back for a mock food co-op meeting on Feb. 19 if they were interested. Of the 20 households, 14 ultimately committed.
The co-op has been operating well above expectations and currently has 11 member households. Every two weeks on Thursday afternoon, the group meets at Greer Community Ministries. At 2 p.m., the truck from Loaves & Fishes arrives and co-op members go to work. Each member has an assigned role. Some unload the truck. Others sort the bins of food by type and prepare for distribution. Several members distribute the food, making sure each household receives an equitable portion. Once the food has been distributed, the group meets to discuss issues and opportunities for improvement. They develop solutions and incorporate them into successive meetings. The process has become more efficient with each meeting. Every family leaves with enough supplemental food to sustain them until the next meeting. Provisions include a mix of fresh meats, fruits, vegetables, prepared foods, and bread.
Initial membership for a family is a one-time $5 fee. There is a bi-weekly processing fee of $4 per household. Fees collected are used to fund the only paid position in the co-op: the Food Co-op Coordinator. Members elected officers for the Co-op Steering Committee. With leadership in place, the group is discussing adding new members.
The co-op concept is not new. It allows restoration of dignity to the food pantry system, which is not always effective in solving the food insecurity issues in our community. People are often forced to visit multiple pantries to meet their household needs. Food pantries, working alone, are not able to provide enough good, quality food. This program is a collaborative effort among three non-profits with a common mission: eliminating food insecurity in their community.
“Collaborative effort” sounds easy, but in reality, it starts with a decision and only progresses with intentional action, self-regulation, mutual respect, and intense commitment to the mission. It takes board support, staff support and leadership that works to prevent barriers, perceived or real, to interfere with the mission. Agencies have to pool resources, not hoard them; they have to relinquish control, not usurp it; they have to work through issues with candor and resolve for the success of the co-op. Work and commitment are required for true collaboration.
Where will the co-op go from here? Time will tell. Member commitment is high. Members have assumed the primary leadership. Greer Relief, Loaves & Fishes, and Greer Community Ministries are committed to this being the beginning of an effective system for providing a reliable food supply to families in need.