Edith Stacey-Huber is passionate about food. She is the creator of the food buying club Authentic Provisions just outside of Ann Arbor, Mich. Authentic Provisions aims to reconnect people in the community to the food, land and farmers who sustain them, through collective purchasing outside of the corporate food system. Edith is also a member of the Equal Exchange Action Forum and will be presenting at our upcoming People’s Food System Summit on June 9-10. Here’s a Q&A between Edith and Ashley Cheuk, our Social Media & Website Manager.
Ashley: How did you initially get involved with the food justice movement?
Edith: I believe the concept was instilled in me as a child back in the mid-to-late 1970s. I remember sitting in my grandparents’ kitchen in upstate New York, listening to a conversation between my uncles, aunts and grandparents. They were discussing the milk quotas they had to abide by. As a small dairy farm, they were assigned a quota and if the quota was exceeded, the milk left in the tank would simply be allowed to flow onto the floor and down the drain. My relatives weren't allowed to keep it or sell it. They were frustrated at the bureaucracy, the waste of food, and the lack of fairness in compensation.
The seed was planted, because I remember feeling how unjust this sounded, even at the age of 10 or 11. It wasn't until later in life that more pieces of the puzzle fell into place, and I became active in the food movement.
Ashley: So, years later, how did Authentic Provisions come to be?
Edith: The first buying club I started was in the early ‘90s. That club was started out of financial necessity, and as I look back, I was motivated by my view of a monopolized grocery system. I moved from the U.S. to Canada in 1991, and was shocked at the prices of food in the grocery stores. There were very few stores, thus the lack of competition didn't evoke any savings to the consumer. I was also looking for organic food, real food, and there were only two small health food stores in the city.
Since my relatives were farmers it wasn't outside the box for me to seek out food from farms. I found a small natural foods distributor in Toronto - we lived in Ottawa, Ontario - gathered a few friends and the first club was born. No internet, no email, so we had order meetings. We would sit in our basement apartment and verbally figure out orders. "Who would like to share a 50-pound bag of oats?” was the type of question swirling around the living room. We would share a half of a head of beef, buy whole lambs, purchase a five-gallon pail of honey and pick up raw milk.
Once I started procuring food this way, there was no turning back. We moved to Michigan in 1996, and I immediately sought out a buying club. The club model has changed over the years with the obliteration of small distributors, and my deeper awareness of food justice and buying local, but I was always either a key member, treasurer, coordinator, or founder of a club.
Then when the country went through the Great Recession of 2007-2009, my family was thrust into some difficult times, and we had to reevaluate our own sustainability. Since the first buying club in the early ‘90s, I had always volunteered my time. Forming Authentic Provisions allowed for me to be more sustainable with my time, by being somewhat compensated, and at the same time follow a passion for food justice - supporting local farmers who truly care about the land they manage and the products they produce.
Ashley: How many members are there currently?
Edith: Authentic Provisions currently has 50 families. If we counted the number of family members in each family, we are looking at close to 130 individuals having access to sources of authentic food.
Ashley: What does being a member of Authentic Provisions actually look like?
Edith: There’s an annual membership fee ($35 a year, nonrefundable) and a one-time food pantry deposit ($150, refundable) which is a member's investment into the collective purchasing power. After paperwork is signed, the member registers with Foodclub.org. This is a members-only site we use, along with many other buying clubs, to process orders.
Members simply place orders online and on a set distribution date come and pick up their purchases. Members order to their own personal needs and there is no minimum purchase with our club. We do ask members to be consistent with their orders as we have a few farmers that grow specifically for us. If we order 100 dozen eggs one month and only 25 another, that isn't fair to the farmer that raises hens for our eggs.
Ashley: Can you tell us more about the farmers you work with? What inspires you about them?
Edith: Adding sources is something I take very seriously and many questions are asked. I have visited many of the food sources, be it farms, orchards, or small businesses to see firsthand what is taking place. Our farmers are incredibly committed to the land, their animals and real food. They choose the way they farm from their heart, with financial profit being necessary, but not the main goal. I have had farmers give me pricing for some items and I know what they are asking is below market.
Being an advocate for our farmers, I've been known to raise their prices for them. At the same time, I am an advocate for our members. We work to secure wholesale pricing and if a price is above market, then I help the farmer to understand our model and what we are trying to accomplish. Seeing the commitment to grow food the way they do, some for years, barely making it, but still staying committed to what they know is right--I can't turn a blind eye to that.
Ashley: How has or could Authentic Provisions impact your local food community?
Edith: When I first started this buying club model in 2009, I was, in part, motivated by a statement from then-Governor Jennifer Granholm: "Each Michigan household spending $10 a week on Michigan food would circulate almost two billion a year in the state economy." I also read books like The Small-Mart Revolution by Michael Shuman and articles like this one, which states, "This means that every dollar spent locally produces two-to-four times the local jobs, two-to-four times the local income and wealth effects, two-to-four times the local taxes, and two-to-four times the local charitable contributions. Despite these impressive economic impacts, most of the country's long-term investable dollars go into government bonds or big corporations on Wall Street." With this data, I believe Authentic Provisions is making a difference economically.
Beyond the economics, I see Authentic Provisions as a personal revolution to move away from the corporate food system. After one of our distributions, where we purchased a significant amount of goods from our Upper Peninsula farmer, I received a phone call from him. With a choked up voice he said, "I have been farming since the ‘70s, and I have never had people like you and the club members who were willing to pay me fairly for my food, and who placed as much value on what they eat as I do." He went on to say, "Because of your order, I was able to pay two years of property taxes."
Ashley: Have you connected with other buying clubs doing similar work? If so, how?
Edith: Yes, we have. When I first envisioned our current club model, I contacted Farm To Consumer Legal Defense Fund (FTCLDF), to run my idea past an attorney. I knew the attorneys at FTCLDF, would 'get me' as they are supporters of food rights. When I shared my idea, the attorney I was speaking to told me of a club in Kentucky that had a similar model. He put me in contact with that club's founder and administrator, John Moody. John helped me fill in some missing pieces to the puzzle I was putting together. Our clubs are different in some ways but we both use Foodclub.org, we support local farmers and many of the same U.S. businesses.
Ashley: What power do you think consumers have to influence our food system?
Edith: I think consumers have the potential to hold all of the power, if we organize, become diligent in our efforts and become truly informed voters and active in spearheading the changes we want to see. Movements toward food sovereignty in Wyoming, Virginia, North Dakota and Maine illustrate the power of the people.
Ashley: How did you first start engaging with Equal Exchange and our products?
Edith: I learned about Equal Exchange through the Kentucky buying club. After reading the mission of Equal Exchange, I realized we had a lot in common. Then I had a telephone conversation, that lasted over an hour, with our local rep, Charlie [Brandes]. It was like I had found a long lost friend!
Ashley: In late 2016, we launched the Equal Exchange Action Forum, of which you became a member early on, as a way to bring people together around food justice issues. How do you think your work connects to the Equal Exchange Action Forum?
Edith: As I said earlier, my first club was in the ‘90s and that began my journey of awareness of the limitations of the commercial food system. Our current club model has taken bolder steps to remove ourselves completely from that system. Personally, our family has a direct connection to our food and I would say 80 percent of the food we eat, we know who grew it or the source it comes from. Authentic Provisions has been taking steps to move away from the commercial food system and that is what the Action Forum is bringing awareness to.
Ashley: What excites you about the Equal Exchange Action Forum efforts?
Edith: [Being with] like minded, kind, aware people working together to make a difference here on Mother Earth! For years I have been following a passion, feeling very alone most of the time. The Action Forum has provided the impetus for others to be active and come together to make a difference. Many times I have had folks ask me, “Why a buying club model, why not just open a store?” When I try to explain I get funny looks and folks just don't seem to 'get it'. Working with Equal Exchange takes very little effort. You folks get me!
Ashley: What are you looking forward to about the first-ever Summit this June?
Edith: I am looking forward to sharing our buying club model with others, meeting other Action Forum members, Equal Exchange worker-owners, meeting Adi, the developer of Foodclub.org, and attending the workshops and hearing what others have to share. Celebrating the possibilities with all!
Ashley: Do you see any parallels between some of the farmers you work with and those Equal Exchange works with?
Edith: Yes, for sure. Equal Exchange has worked to organize farmers to bring a high quality, fairly traded, product to market. The club model has allowed folks to organize to support farmers in a way they most likely wouldn't be supported otherwise. In the process, the club fosters fairness, and the commitment to grow and consume real food.
Ashley: Challenging the corporate food system can feel overwhelming sometimes. How do you stay motivated?
Edith: Yes, there are so many things that we need to address! But, my partner and children inspire me a great deal. The other day my daughter said to us, “Our food always has so much more flavor than other food.” She commented that the sunflower oil we recently acquired actually tastes like sunflowers! Having farmers thank the club and share how we help them continue what they love to do, that is usually enough of a pep talk to keep me going for weeks. Conversations and connection with those involved in the buying club community and Equal Exchange - all of you keep me motivated.
Interested in attending the People's Food System Summit on June 9-10? Become an Action Forum member and let us know you'll be attending by May 20, 2017.