Having framed the need for alternatives to state welfare programs in the previous post, let’s turn our attention to a model solution or four.
Let’s make some wild assumptions. If we assume that CalWORKs stops serving about a third of its 33,500 clients, and half of those 10,000 families are located in several large clusters in underserved neighborhoods like Oak Park or Del Paso Heights. We might find relatively concentrated clusters of a thousand or more families in serious need of food assistance. Each of these would represent a substantial critical mass for cooperative action. A lot can be done, with the right organization and leadership.
The poverty of our prospective members is a significant obstacle. Usually, cooperatives are largely funded by investments from members, but such equity will be limited or nonexistent. Ideally, these projects will need to find ways to meet the needs of all members of their communities, whether or not they need assistance. Those who can afford to pay more may have the option of making additional contributions. In many cases, faith communities will probably play central roles, due to the prevalence of religious teachings on caring for the poor.
Indeed, many of the available models grew from a religious context. The Georgia Avenue Food Cooperative, located in suburban Atlanta, is now actually five separate co-ops that use democratic organizing to meet members’ needs. In order to build community and empowerment, they limit membership to 50 families. Once one co-op fills up, they start another. Every other week, members pay $3 for up to $100 in food, which they help box up during their meetings. About a ton of food is gathered and distributed at each meeting.
This is a small start to solving a huge problem, but this sort of model is scalable. The Mormon Church has shown this through its Bishop’s Storehouses. There are 108 of these in the U.S. and Canada, and 29 in other countries. They are designed like supermarkets without cash registers. Some produce is grown on church-owned farms, and most funding comes from a monthly practice of fasting for two meals and donating what would have been spent. The storehouses are staffed by volunteers and people enrolled in the missions program.
For another effort that is not tied to specific church membership, we can look to the Community Food Co-op of Utah. This cooperative started as a chapter of SHARE, which is a food aid program based on “Self Help And Resource Exchange.” Members volunteer two hours each month they order a box, usually at about half of retail cost. The savings are not as dramatic as the previously mentioned efforts, but members still save substantial amounts by pooling their buying power.
Another way that this might be financed is through creating a program that works on a sliding scale, or by providing credits in exchange for labor. It might be time to dust off some historic models from the Depression, including the Los Angeles-based Unemployed Cooperative Relief Organization, which helped feed 150,000 people at its peak.
If these projects can be reproduced in some form, we will take a lot of pressure off of a collapsing state welfare system. Cooperative welfare may not be able to meet all of the community’s needs, but it will allow the government to focus its energy on needs that cannot be met cooperatively (i.e. cash aid), and on people who are struggling with poverty in more isolated areas that will be harder to organize -perhaps a small rural community or a pocket of poverty in older suburbs. More importantly, it will provide ways for people to take care of each others needs, rather than waiting for outside help.