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Change Through Many Hands

By Bart Gazzola

It is not inappropriate to call this the “barn building” moment for the Garden City Food Co-op.

What’s happening right now – and how the wider community’s engagment is needed, if its to be successful – is the next major step to having the Garden City Food Co-op (GCFC) open and running in downtown St. Catharines. This will change the landscape of the city in a number of ways, as radical as the changes brought by the presence of the MIWSFPA or the PAC. Everything else that has happened, whether the six years of effort that GCFC Chair Mark Shantz mentions in conversations, or the many contributions of other volunteers (past and present), has built up to this moment: the launch of the Capital Investment Campaign.
Before we go any further: if you’re unfamiliar with the GCFC, and their mandate (informatively and succintly summed up at gardencityfoodcoop.ca), I’d cite the last of their seven core principles as a good place to begin: concern for community.

But to quote specifics: “Garden City Food Co-op will be a grocery store located in downtown St. Catharines filled with fresh, locally produced and fairly priced foods directly from local farms. In this store, the money you pay for your groceries will be a contribution to the sustainable development of your local community. All for the better, you’ll feed yourself, your family, your neighbours, and the local economy”.

Their AGM happens on Sunday, March 20 at 2pm, at 108 Russell Ave., in the Russell Ave. Community Centre. Memberships (a mere $120 for a LIFETIME membership which can be used by all members of that household) must be purchased before March 5 to have voting privileges at the upcoming AGM.

The GCFC has an initial goal of $500,000 for its Capital Investment Campaign. Ideally, the majority of this will be raised through the selling of shares, but as the overall budget is 1.4 million dollars, other sources (loans and grants) will also be explored. But anyone familiar with community initiatives know that demonstrable community support can be a definitive factor in securing “external” funding. Some of the groundwork done by the GCFC in consulting other cooperatives has made it very clear that member investment is intrinsically linked to the opening of the store (the site is 57 Carlisle Ave., in the heart of the downtown). This is the aforementioned “building the barn” moment, adressing a community at large for significant contributions, as the GCFC will serve not only the interests of the immediate downtown demographic, but the Niagara region as well.

I cited the GCFC site before, but their blog and particularly the entry “Why joining the Garden City Food Co-op is for you” provides a convincing argument. I could be superficial, and echo the stories about the insane price of cauliflower in the current economic downturn, but I’d rather use the words of Shantz and say we need a real change in how we purchase and consume food. In this region, good quality food is available, and plentiful, so how to deliver that (literally) to those whom want and need it? We’ve seen a great deal of change in the urban core of STC recently: and the GCFC will also break a stereotype of the downtown demographic, as there is demand (as well as need) for a grocery store open seven days a week, and thus creating a “food hub” for the downtown. Most of us can acknowledge that the food distribution system is NOTworking the way it should be, as demonstrated by the distance that food “must” travel, and how that’s primarily imported food, that then passes on this expense to the consumer – if they can still afford it at all.

Now, that’s not to say that the GCFC will be the “cheapest”space: but it will be playing a strong local role, and there’s an interest expressed by the GCFC in privileging vendors from the Downtown Market, allowing them to “doubledip” but also making their wares more widely available (imagine seven days a week, instead of just three, to purchase local produce and products).

In creating markets for the local economy, it’s also about how we’ve all experienced browsing at a chain, national grocery store and knowing local produce is seasonal, but none is available. One can cite the “100 mile diet” initiative (this has worked so well, for so many, in many communities – a restaurant in my previous city practiced this, and have won awards for their cuisine), but also how, from a geographic perspective, to buy and consume local benefits various strata and areas of our community.

To return to action from ideology: the GCFC are selling shares that are alternately $1000 and $5000, and it’s like any other investment that guarantees a dividend to those who purchase. All funds are held by a lawyer in trust until the minimal requirement is met, and tansparency and clarity have been the standard since this group came coalesced to form the GCFC. Their web site is filled with information and the organization is member and volunteer defined: the people making this happen are doing so because they see a need to be filled, and are contributing their time, effort and investment both financial and otherwise.
This is an idea that has been in play since 2003, that various Community Social Services group (including The Raft, Niagara Poverty Reduction Network, Start Me Up Niagara and many others) have declared a necessary step to improving quality of life in the urban core and beyond. Mark spoke of how the genesis for the GCFC can be drawn back to people sitting in the basement of a church asking “how to get good food in downtown St. Catharines.”

Now is the time to make this happen, to build an organization that will stand for future generations, here, but also have immediate and real benefits to many. The Garden City Food Co Op is set to open in 2017: but right now, the AGM is coming up fast, and major change can come from many hands. Much work has been put down, but more is needed. Invest in a membership, or join the board, or look for other ways to make this needed and far sighted project come to fruition.
Visit gardencityfoodcoop.ca, become a member and make yourself heard at the AGM on March 20.

Written by Bart Gazzola

Bart Gazzola (also known as #artcriticfromhell) is an arts writer/critic who has published with Magenta Magazine, Canadian Art, FUSE, Galleries West, PrairieSeen, Long Exposure and BlackFlash (where he was Editorial Chair for 3 years). He is Assistant Editor at thesound.rocks and a frequent contributor to various cultural spaces in Niagara.

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