“When I walked through the door, I knew something was different — but it just felt so familiar.” This is a common reaction when people discover The Mustard Seed Co-op, Hamilton’s only community-owned grocery store, focused on local, wholesome, affordable food. But why does it feel that way? Because local food is at the heart of vibrant community.
In his essay The Idea of a Local Economy, agrarian writer and novelist Wendell Berry wrote, “Without prosperous local economies, the people have no power and the land no voice.” People in Hamilton have experienced this reality. As heavy industry declined, our city was left with decades of disinvestment, leading many households to feel an unsettling displacement — this wasn’t the city they knew, and they didn’t know how to change it.
The same could be said of our land — whether industrial brownfields or heritage buildings — and waterfront. However, over the past decade, incremental changes have been bringing life back to all areas of our city thanks to the hard work and investment of dedicated people, entrepreneurs, and community groups willing to take the risks necessary to build a prosperous community.
Three years ago, The Mustard Seed Co-op was just an idea. Lots of people wanted to do something to improve their health, the local economy, our environment, and our community; however, effecting change is often easier when the challenge is shared. When 1,000 people responded to an online survey proposing the idea of a co- operative grocery store focused on local food, it was clear that “eating local” was more than a “foodie craze” — it was a strategy to build community resilience.
Eating local benefits our health. We know our producers, so we ask about their production methods. Organic, low-spray, grass-fed, natural, whole grain — these terms can be more than marketing-speak when based on trust-worthy relationships. Customers can have confidence that the foods they buy are nourishing their bodies. Our Local Bounty Boxes are popular not just because the produce is affordable, but because people experience the benefits of fresh food brought straight from our producers. They have power because they know from where, and from whom, their food comes.
Prosperous economies need local jobs. Southern Ontario has tremendous agricultural land, so food-pro- ducing jobs are important. However as brands and supply chains are increasingly global, it can be hard to find local food on grocery shelves. The Mustard Seed works with over 200 local producers including VG Meats (Simcoe) to Koike Farms produce (Millgrove), Dawson’s Hot Sauce (Hamilton) and Gunn’s Hill Cheese (Woodstock). Prioritizing smaller and mid-sized producers promotes a resilient, diverse, and creative economy where livelihoods are sustained. We challenge our members and customers to spend the first $20 of their weekly grocery budget at the co-op. By doing so, we have contributed over $2.38 million to our local economy since opening in January 2014.
Environmental challenges often seem huge: global warming, invasive species, urban sprawl. Who can do anything about such overwhelming issues? Start with personal and co-operative action. The Mustard Seed supports producers who reduce pesticide use or graze their livestock. We help local apiarists rebuild healthy honey- bee populations. We know that global problems are linked to local decisions, so when we buy an Ontario lettuce vs. one from California, we help alleviate that state’s drought disaster compounded by over-reliance on exported produce. Our local ownership means we can decide to share food with community groups, so our waste rates are 80 per cent below conventional grocers’.
Food brings people together. Co-op shoppers are a diverse group — not just aging hippies, foodies, or activists — from every part of our city. Yet they are united by common values, and a desire to see a vibrant community where everyone eats. This means wholesome food access for all is something we’re working towards, including partnerships with the YWCA. It means embracing the complexity and cost of buying from local producers instead of multinational distributors. It means “keeping the culture in local agriculture” by hosting a summer-long Local Food Festival — four special Saturdays where local producers, con- sumers, musicians, and artists can experience the vibrancy that comes from sharing life in Hamilton.
That feeling you get from shopping local? It’s the feeling of home, surrounded by the bounty of our region’s food producers, with the Arkells on the stereo, bumping into friends in the produce aisle. You’re doing more than getting groceries, you are helping shape a community where our economy sustains us all so that our people have power and our land has a voice.