UW-Green Bay

Master of Science in Environmental Science & Policy

The Role of Food Cooperatives in Building More Sustainable Communities: a Case Study of Food Cooperatives in or Near Wisconsin

Lisa Ashenbrenner

Nowhere is the concept of sustainability more important today than for food production, distribution and consumption. Current agricultural systems are unsustainable, using practices that degrade the land and harm farmers and agricultural communities. Food travels long distances from producer to consumer while using a lot of energy, producing pollution and waste and becoming less fresh. Most people today have little idea where their food comes from or under what conditions it is produced and have lost a vital connection with nature and each other. This system also encourages poor dietary choices, with many negative health effects.

This study examines the efforts of ten cooperatives in and around Wisconsin to make both their businesses and communities more sustainable. In-depth interviews were conducted which focused the co-ops' sustainability practices.

It was found that the food cooperatives interviewed engage in many sustainability-related activities addressing all three pillars of sustainability. This is accomplished not only through more sustainable product offerings and the reduction of the stores' own environmental footprints, but also through more far-reaching educational efforts. The co-ops play significant environmental roles especially in promoting organic foods, buying local, avoiding genetically modified organisms and packaging reduction. The co-ops also bring people together within their communities, since the businesses are owned by community members, and play leading roles in helping people eat healthier, providing significant social contributions. In addition, as locally owned businesses, they support and strengthen their local economies. As a result, food cooperatives are ideal organizations for enhancing the sustainability of the communities in which they reside.

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