Place or People – What's the Difference? Case Studies of Food Co-Ops in Inner City “Food Deserts”

Friday, June 24, 2016: 10:45 AM-12:15 PM
201 Moses (Moses Hall)
Jen Budney, Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
Audra Krueger, Centre for the Study of Co-operatives, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
Murray Evan Fulton, Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, and Centre for the Study of Co-operatives, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
One social dilemma that exists in many North American cities is the presence of so-called food deserts, geographical areas in which residents lack access to healthy food due to economic and physical barriers (Reisig & Hobbiss, 2000). In urban settings, these areas of relative exclusion are characterized by the predominance of low-income households, and by their racial diversity (Ford & Dzewaltowski, 2008).

            Social economy organizations (SEOs) often emerge to deal with issues such as food deserts. The purpose of this paper is to examine the organizational failure of an SEO, Good Food Junction (GFJ), a consumer food co-op located in a relatively poor, predominately indigenous community in Saskatoon, SK, and to compare it to the success of a worker co-op grocery, Neechi Foods, located in a similar neighbourhood in Winnipeg, MB. In examining these two cases, the paper addresses governance issues that must be considered by SEOs tackling social dilemmas such as food deserts. The result is a critique of attempts to use SEOs to rectify ethnic inequality that is combined with case studies, backed up with theoretical discussion, of alternative governance structures of SEOs in racially divided urban settings.

The failure of GFJ can be linked to it being a top-down “community” initiative that was established in response to a perceived food desert by a group of well-intentioned, predominately white members of the educated middle class living alongside, in proximity to, or “in solidarity with” those in the predominantly poor and largely indigenous community. As a result of poor financial performance due to weak sales, GFJ closed its doors in January 2016 after three years of operation. In contrast, Neechi Foods has been running successfully since 1990, a success that can be attributed to its structure as a workers’ co-operative and its “bottom-up” approach that keeps it closely attuned to the needs of community residents.

The paper argues that the respective failure and success of the two organizations is the result of the interaction of structure with other elements such as organizational vision, identity (particularly ethno-cultural), and trust. Governance is critical in these interactions, because governance “determines who has power, who makes decisions, how other players make their voice heard and how account is rendered” (Institute on Governance, 2015). As will be shown in this paper, the determination of who gets to decide what affects three core elements: (1) the management of strategic interdependencies in the organization; (2) the development of the “right” cognitive view of the future; and (3) the establishment and maintenance of legitimacy.

In the context of the two SEOs examined in this paper, the key strategic interdependency arises as a result of decisions made by the residents of a geographical region to either support or not support a local grocery store – i.e., to co-operate or not. It is this strategic interdependency that makes the issue of food deserts a social dilemma. The key cognitive issues centre on the vision and identity of the co-operative, while the legitimacy issues centre on trust and, in the case of GFJ, the residents’ disinclination to accept decisions made by “outsiders.” 

As Ostrom (1990) argues, the successful operation of common-pool resources (CPRs) can be achieved through the adoption of eight institutional design principles. In this paper it is argued that these principles apply equally as well (with some adaptation) to managing SEOs in environments where there are sharp differences in economic welfare divided along lines of race or culture. We also argue that while these principles nicely capture the first and third elements of the governance framework, they do not provide sufficient attention to the second element – the development of the “right” cognitive view of the future – nor do they pay adequate attention to the manner in which trust is developed between organizations and communities.

In terms of the design principles that apply to SEOs, the principals that have proven to be most relevant to CPR management also appear to be most relevant to the development of SEOs in settings characterized by racial or cultural division (for an examination of these principles in the context of CPRs, see Cox, Arnold, & Tomas, 2010). These are: Principle 1A – the presence of well-defined boundaries around a community of users (the individuals with the right to participate, rather than geographical or resource boundaries) and Principle 4B – the condition that those monitoring the organization are members of the community.

The analysis of the GFJ and Neechi cases suggests that the cognitive vision is also critical. For GFJ, the vision, expressed in 2007, was a “store that strengthens our community by promoting healthy foods and providing a positive working, learning, and shopping environment” (GFJ News, 2007, cited in Steeves, 2015). In contrast, Neechi views itself as a “community store, based around the principles of an Aboriginal-owned and operated worker co-operative” (Neechi Commons, 2015). GFJ emphasizes a junction – a place where people, and people and food, can meet to form new bonds, while Neechi, which means “friend/brother/sister” in Cree and Ojibwa, emphasizes a common bond that already exists.

Why might these different visions, born of different governance structures, be important to organizational success? One answer is that, to be effective, organizations have to be “interpretative systems” (Daft & Weick, 1984; Loasby, 2001). These interpretations are important in terms of the expectations and identities they create in the minds of people. This links the interpretative element to the manner in which interdependencies are managed, and how trust and legitimacy are created and strengthened. Together, all three of these elements have to be properly balanced to allow SEOs to successfully address complex problems such as food deserts.