Using technology to feed our community

Co-ops are built on the principle of filling the needs of their members and the community they serve. The Friends & Farmers Cooperative took shape because community members saw a need to support the abundant small family farms dotting our landscape. They had a desire to play a role in supporting a vibrant, healthy community by helping to get the produce and goods grown right in our backyard into more homes in our area.

Over the past 10 years, there has been a growing conversation around our modern food system and the implementation of sustainable alternatives. How do the products on your dinner plate get there? What processing and packaging take place? What has the abundance of processed food in the American diet done to the overall health of our country? Is there a better way to feed our communities? As one of more than 100 startup food cooperatives across the country, Friends & Farmers took its vision of a brick-and-mortar store showcasing our small family farms and created an online market as a stepping-stone, while simultaneously raising startup capital through new-member equity investments. It benefits the future store by building relationships within our local food system. As a clicks-to-bricks model, Friends & Farmers online market is another way to help our community access fresh local goods while putting money back into the community economy.

Since its inception in November 2014, the online market has put more than $125,000 back in the pockets of area farmers — more than 35 farmers and vendors collectively — and, in turn, reinvested into our local economy. Reports continue to show the challenges faced by small family farms, especially across rural Pennsylvania. The cost of operating expenditures often exceed their revenue. Many small, family farms have multiple sources of income to make ends meet. We need to value their work and better understand the true cost of food.

Food is an integral part of our survival and helps us thrive as individuals and yet we are only comfortable when the prices are cheap. Like farmers markets, the Friends & Farmers online market allows farmers and producers to set their desired price for their goods. They need to thrive, too! This is the social impact we can make with our food choices — allowing those who provide for us, our neighbors and our friends the opportunity to make a living doing what they love. As a cooperative, this is a way for our membership to share in the values of a connected food system while reaping the benefits of a glorious bounty of fresh, nutritious produce.

Using a software platform, shopping the Friends & Farmers online market is meant to provide convenience to those who are unable to get to one of our local farmers markets or would like more choice in products than a traditional CSA (community supported agriculture) model. From the comforts of your home or office, you can shop for local foods weekly from Friday at noon until Monday at noon. Honoring those who have committed to Friends & Farmers with their membership equity share, they receive a discount on the product prices. You don’t have to be a member to shop the online market, but being one has its benefits. With an average weekly order of $45, members save close to $235 per year on fresh, locally sourced produce through our market. This business model connects our local farmers with local eaters and is revolutionizing our food system — farm to table and beyond.

Stacey Budd is a resident of State College and works as the outreach coordinator for the Friends and Farmers Cooperative. Friends and Farmers Cooperative is a member of the National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International, which is celebrating its centennial anniversary in 2016.