Our Table Cooperative: Creating a Resilient and Interdependent Local Food Culture
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Welcome to the Companies That Care podcast, where I highlight business leaders who are making a difference in the world. I have a passion for companies that care and give back to their communities. The first three episodes of Companies That Care, launched on Earth Day 2021, focus on sustainable fashion, food, and corporate philanthropy.
In this episode I interview Narendra Varma, cofounder of Our Table Cooperative in Sherwood, Oregon, a cooperative model for community food systems. Our Table grows organic products and offers education and supports food security through their nonprofit.
Narendra and his wife Machelle started Our Table in 2013 after working in the tech industry and moving to Portland from the Seattle area. Over time he came to realize that he cares deeply about food.
“First, I really like to eat and second, I'm from a part of India, Punjab, where we're known for our obsession with food.”
Narendra grew up in a very strong household culture of cooking, since his mom was a caterer. He and his wife were interested in creating what they call a holy nexus between food and community.
“One of the things we realized is that if you look at our society and our current state of things and all the good and the bad…whether it's environmental destruction, climate change, or social injustices, a lot of those things are not necessarily rooted but mirrored in the food system…the food system at some level is a microcosm of a lot of these problems.”
Narendra and Machelle were looking at these systemic kinds of problems and thinking of ways to imagine something better. They came up with a vision for a more resilient and interdependent local food culture on a community scale.
“We're simply trying to tell an alternate story, or trying to collectively imagine what a different kind of local community scale food system could be like, and experiment with it and try it out and learn from that.”
Realizing the environmental, social, and economic issues were intertwined, they set out create a community owned food system that was rooted in personal and cooperative relationships among all of the people involved, as well as the natural systems at play.
Our Table is a multi-stakeholder cooperative, the only one in the food industry that includes consumers and food producers. Narendra describes the cooperative as a work in progress and an experiment, because they’re not sure if it will work in the long term. He hopes others will be inspired to learn from their mistakes so they can make their own.
“The goal is to bring together all of the people involved in growing, producing, delivering, and eating food…everybody from the farmer to you in your kitchen sitting at your dining table and eating the food, and ensure that all of those players have a seat and a voice at the table, hence the name Our Table.”
Our Table consists of three stakeholder groups: (1) the workers (farmers, storekeepers, cooks, etc.), (2) independent farms or producers of food not made directly on Our Table’s farm, and (3) the people who eat the food. Each person has a seat at the table and one vote in the business. Our Table is unique as a cooperative, because each member has one vote, no matter their role or commitment level.
“It's a fundamentally democratic institution. I am the executive director of the cooperative and the founder, and I have exactly the same vote as somebody else who is working here or is a consumer member here.”
The cooperative has a 60-acre farm in Sherwood, Oregon, the base of operations, where they grow 50 to 60 different varieties of vegetables, berries, and flowers, and occasionally rear livestock. They also have 16 other producer members who grow grain and meat or make kombucha, pickles, and other items. That food gets sold at the full-service grocery store on the farm. Our Table has a community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscription box program, and they also sell products at wholesale to restaurants, grocery stores, etc. They also offer Friday night farm dinners and educational events to promote community.
Our Table believes diversity leads to resilience, so they plant a high diversity of crops and implement diversity in their business structures as well. In addition to the cooperative, they have a 501(c)3 nonprofit, which focuses on education and food insecurity mutual aid. They also work with local school districts to develop a farm-based education curriculum.
Noticing they have a scholarship fund for their CSA, I asked Narendra how Our Table gives back to the community. They’ve became acutely aware of the extreme levels of food insecurity in our country as a whole, which has doubled during the pandemic.
“We got together with members of the community and the school districts and came up with a three-pronged approach. The number one was to start a scholarship fund for the CSA…the second was to encourage people to grow their own food…our sister nonprofit and our farm are growing plant starts and we're producing these grow-it-yourself kits, which are like little raised beds with some soil and plant starts and information. We’re giving them away to families in need in the local area to help them grow some of their own food…and the third prong is large-scale community meals.”
Narendra explained they’re waiting for COVID to be over to implement the third prong, which is similar to a soup kitchen. It’s inspired by a Sikh tradition called langar, the practice of preparing and serving a free meal to promote the Sikh tenet of seva. Anyone can visit a Sikh temple, or gurdwara, to receive a free meal. (If you’d like to learn more about the Sikh religion, listen to my interview with Jasnam Daya Singh.)
“Langar is a simple meal free of charge, and the only expectation is that you will somehow help out with that process...maybe you can do some dishes or help serve other people the meal. It's a little bit of giving back, a way for the community to serve their own community.”
Narendra believes community building is not only building community within their own staff, but also with the land.
“We see ourselves in relationship with the soil, with the microorganisms, the plants, the animals…as farmers we are stewards of that community.”
Our Table offers a different kind of community. While most people have little interaction with their grocery store workers, at Our Table, the storekeepers know their customers.
“If you walk into our store, the storekeeper is going to know if you're a regular. They’ll know your name, your kids, and what your preferences are, because over time they've taken the time to form a relationship with you.”
We talked about organic vs. conventional farming and soil health, and Narendra pointed out that farm workers are heavily exposed to chemicals in agriculture. Farm workers have the highest incidence of poisoning and death and health impacts from exposure to pesticides and artificial fertilizers.
“Farming is about life, not death, so that's really what organic is about. It's about the people, the plants, the animals, and the ecosystem, and that includes all of us.”
We discussed the difficult working conditions for our nation’s food producers and farmers. Our Table strives to pay their workers a fair wage based on a living wage calculator, at least 30 percent higher than the state minimum wage. In addition, all employees become member owners of the cooperative, with the option to become salaried.
I asked Narendra what lessons they can pass on to others who’d like to replicate what Our Table is doing.
“The first lesson I would say is patience. It takes time. Second, it all hinges on community…when you build communal ties, other things fall into place…but it takes time to build community.”
Listen to the podcast to learn Narendra’s ideal meal, how he was raised to view food as he grew up in India, and his hopes for the next five years.
Narendra’s advice for others who want to create companies that care is to have a strong vision for something different.
“Don't be afraid to go out and try it…community is the key and bringing people together is the key, and then other things simply follow.”
In the next episode I interview two of my mentors. Elisa Speranza chaired the CH2M Foundation board, and Ellen Sandberg was the executive director. We spoke about how CH2M rebooted its foundation and invested in sustainable development around the world.
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