Earth Day is Thursday, April 22, marking the 51st anniversary of the very first Earth Day celebration in 1970! According to EarthDay.org, 20 million Americans (representing 10% of the total population of the United States at that time) took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums on that first Earth Day to advocate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Earth Day celebrations have continued to grow in scope and magnitude since that day in 1970 as the awareness of climate change and the dire need for environmental advocacy has become ever more apparent.
Food co-ops have been looking for ways to reduce environmental impact for decades. In fact, many co-ops were formed by people who wanted access to healthy, delicious food with reduced environmental impact and less waste, and co-ops continue to lead on these issues today. You help co-ops continue this proud tradition every time you choose to shop at one, invest in ownership, or tell a friend about your local food co-op. Here are a few of the ways that co-ops support healthier patterns of production and consumption:
Supporting Local Farmers & Producers
Local products at food co-ops around the country average 21% of total co-op sales, compared with a national grocery store average of just 1.8%. Here at your Co-op, we’re extremely proud to report that 34% of our sales come from local products, thanks to our partnerships with more than 400 local farmers and food producers! Supporting these local farmers and producers with your food dollars helps to decrease environmental impact by reducing the fossil fuel consumption and air pollution associated with transporting foods over long distances. At the average chain supermarket, most of the food items you buy travel over 1500 miles to reach your plate via lengthy truck and plane trips. This not only causes massive fuel consumption and pollution but also involves the need for packing and shipping facilities and refrigeration throughout the supply chain, consuming vast amounts of energy. The more food miles collected during food transportation, the more fossil fuels are burned, allowing more harmful greenhouse gas emissions to be released into the atmosphere.
Nationwide, co-op shoppers demonstrate an inspiring commitment to the environment, with organic sales at co-ops totaling over $415 million annually. Organic farming methods have been scientifically validated as being not only more sustainable but a potential answer to some of our most pressing environmental problems. On average more than 33% of the products co-ops carry are USDA Certified Organic and represent 42% of a co-op’s total sales, compared with a national grocery store average of just 5%. Certified organic food by law cannot be grown using toxic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or GMO seeds. Beyond the benefit to individual shoppers is the positive impact organic agriculture has on natural systems. Organic methods are supportive of all levels of life from soil microbes to pollinators to the health of farmworkers in the fields.
Tackling Food Waste
Spoilage is a perennial challenge for the food industry. Diverting food from the landfill is the key, and co-ops tackle that through donations to food pantries, composting, and better utilization of cooking scraps. Nationally, the average food co-op is donating 24,100 pounds of healthy, edible food to food pantries annually, with a total of more than 1.5 million pounds of food donated in 2016 alone. Similarly-sized conventional grocery stores divert an average of 12,500 pounds, about half of what co-ops do. Here at your Co-op, food waste reduction is a particular passion and we’re proud to have donated over 6,500 pounds of food to our local food shelves last year. Non-marketable foods that are not fit for human consumption are passed along to local farmers who pick up our compost regularly to feed their animals. The remaining food scraps that aren’t fit for animal consumption (coffee grounds, meat scraps, etc.) are picked up by Casella Waste Management and become compost. These practices support our planet by reducing the significant greenhouse gas emissions associated with food scraps entering a landfill and by making the most of the energy expenditure that went into producing those food items in the first place.
Promoting Reuse and Recycling
According to a 2012 Impact Study, co-ops recycle 96 percent of cardboard, 74 percent of food waste, and 81 percent of plastics compared to 91 percent, 36 percent, and 29 percent, respectively, recycled by conventional grocers. Your Co-op understands that recycling isn’t the panacea we all once believed it to be, so we’ve doubled down on our efforts to reuse and upcycle as many items as possible. We dedicated the Spring 2019 and Spring 2020 issues of our Under the Sun newsletter to this important topic, complete with a map in the 2019 edition centerfold highlighting all of the items throughout the store that are reused either by local farmers and producers (apple crates, delivery boxes, maple syrup buckets, and honey buckets) or by customers (spice scoops, egg cartons, product delivery boxes, etc.). We also installed a cardboard bailer to allow us to minimize the number of trips required by Casella to pick up our recycled cardboard and we’re constantly exploring new ways to offer products without packaging.
Supporting Sustainable Infrastructure
Buildings have direct environmental impacts, ranging from the use of raw materials for their construction and renovation to the consumption of natural resources, like water and fossil fuels, and the emission of harmful substances. When your Co-op expanded in 2017, significant efforts were made to minimize the environmental impact of the physical store. We prioritized the integrity of the building “envelope” to ensure a high level of control over indoor air quality, temperature, humidity levels, and energy consumption. We also made every effort to use sustainable building materials, installed LED and solar lighting throughout the building and parking lot, and integrated hyper-efficient refrigeration systems. The efficiency of refrigeration systems has a critical impact on a store’s carbon footprint, as refrigeration can account for as much as a third of a typical grocery store’s electricity usage and the refrigerants used in refrigeration systems have a greenhouse warming potential many thousand times that of carbon dioxide. Therefore, reducing refrigerant leaks and carefully maintaining refrigeration systems can have a significant impact.
While we truly believe Earth Day should be celebrated every day, we love having a specific day set aside to honor our incredible planet and we enjoy the conversation it inspires with regard to environmental sustainability and climate action. People like you make it happen. When you shop at the co-op, your money makes a bigger impact in your local community than at a typical grocery store. At the co-op, your food dollars work to support a robust local economy, a vibrant community, and a healthy environment. Thanks to co-op shopper support, local farmers and producers continue to have a market for their delicious food, organic agriculture continues to grow, local food pantries and nonprofit organizations have a strong partner and together we are making progress towards a fairer food system.