Plant a co-op

Local author Andrew McLeod wants you contributing to the food supply!

Andrew McLeod says co-ops give everyone an equal voice.

Andrew McLeod says co-ops give everyone an equal voice.

Photo By Anne Stokes

Andrew McLeod likens societies to forests. New plants continually sprout at the ground level, moving nutrients around in the struggle for survival, but mature trees crowd out the sunlight and suck up all the water, leaving little for the saplings below.

These saplings represent the average person, and the mature trees are the economical and political giants who hold power. But McLeod, a Sacramento resident, believes in a more equitable formation for society: Cooperatives that bring decision-making and resource-sharing down to everyone, where each member has a voice.

He has a special affinity for co-op farming in urban settings—a concept he calls “Lovegardens,” a riff off the old Victory Gardens of World War II, where Americans patriotically turned backyards into places to grow fruits and vegetables to reduce the burden on the public food supply. With Lovegardens, people take control of food production and processing to feed themselves and their neighbors.

The ways societies might benefit from cooperative forms of organizing drive McLeod’s personal life and career. His interest in co-ops first developed more than a decade ago, when he was one of about 30 co-owners of a collectively managed vegetarian restaurant in Minnesota.

“I was actually exposed to the democratic process,” he said. “We claim to be a democratic and egalitarian society, but we rarely experience that. We engage in democracy once or twice a year. We view it as something that happens somewhere else.”

McLeod has written a book called Holy Cooperation! Building Graceful Economies, released in mid-October, which addresses how religious teachings in the Old Testament offer a theological basis for cooperative living. The book explores how Christians deal with issues of right vs. wrong as a group sharing power, wealth and responsibility, drawing on biblical examples, such as how after Jesus’ resurrection, believers eliminated poverty by sharing resources.

In October, McLeod traveled to the Trento province of northern Italy for a conference where he gave a presentation on the ways Christianity, Judaism and Islam use co-ops as a peacemaking force. Incidentally, Trento has roughly 400 co-ops for the half-million people in the region, which priests originally started and the Catholic Church continues to support.

Here in Sacramento, McLeod sees a role for churches in cultivating co-ops through Lovegardens. Many churches, he said, have lawns that exist only for their aesthetic value. Why not rip these up, put in a garden and feed the congregation? McLeod references the Urban Farming project in Detroit, a secular organization of about 20 urban farms where volunteers take what they need and donate the rest to food banks.

Born and raised in Sacramento, McLeod spent some time living in Alaska, attracted to the state’s mystique. He had stints as a newspaper reporter, nature guide and clerical worker for a cocoa company. He chopped wood and hauled water, studied wild plants and developed an appreciation for bluegrass and smoked salmon. Then it was time to leave.

“It was too isolated, and I was looking for some place more connected with the rest of society,” McLeod said.

So he moved to the Pacific Northwest, then to Santa Cruz before moving back to Sacramento this past summer. He works for the California Center for Cooperative Development in Davis, specializing in the development of retail food co-ops and community-based food systems.

“Everybody needs to be looking at their surroundings and figure out how they can contribute to the food supply,” McLeod said. “There are neighborhoods lacking access to fresh produce, and that’s only going to get worse as this economic crisis continues.”

Not everybody, though, has the ability to tear up a lawn and grow a Lovegarden. For instance, apartment dwellers don’t have a plot of land, and elderly folks may not be physically able to do the labor—which is where co-ops come into play.

Ultimately, McLeod wants us to bring food production back to the neighborhood level and out of the backyard into the community.