On a Cooperative

Talking to Brooklyn Packers about their Black-worker-owned model for supporting agriculture and food sovereignty.

I think a lot about how we create models that don’t exploit us, hurt us, poison us under capitalism, a system set up to do all of those things. While so many people repeat the nihilist refrain, “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism,” I don’t believe that’s true. I believe we have to try to make food choices, when we can, that have land and labor in the forefront of our minds.

While so much of making “ethical” consumer choices in our global food system can feel like bourgeois affectation, sometimes it’s a clear decision between a chocolate bar made from cacao farmed by child labor and one that was not. Sometimes it’s a clear decision between a spice a farmer was paid well for and one where the farmer was not. So on and so forth, whether we’re talking about coffee or avocados or sugar or booze or bananas. These aren’t the limits of our political abilities; they’re just how we can choose to express a little bit of care in our day to day lives, should we have the luxury of choice, as well as access to it. (I also write this as I read Food in Cuba: In Pursuit of a Decent Meal by Hanna Garth, which has shown me too the limits of a socialist system that supports adequate access to nutrition but not necessarily the things people need to survive on a cultural, social level. More on that eventually.)

To that end, I want to share conversations with folks who are trying to make these choices easier and better, while recognizing all the deep nuances and complexities of our global food system.

One way to do that is to support worker-owned cooperative models in food, like the Black-led Brooklyn Packers, which works with local farmers in pursuit of food sovereignty in Brooklyn. Talking to Raina Kennedy, who coordinates sourcing at the coop, was illuminating and incredibly enjoyable—we got into how she became interested in food in the first place, as well as some of the thorny stuff about the inescapability of capitalism. (I didn’t realize I’d recorded my usual first questions, but leaving it in here because it was a funny exchange!) Find audio here.

Alicia: Hi, can you tell me your name and pronouns to start? 

Raina: Yeah. Raina Kennedy, she/her pronouns.

Alicia: Cool. We have the same last name. [Laughs.] 

Raina: Yeah, we do. [Laughs.]

Alicia: A weird last name that people get very—people get really weird about it. I don't know.

Raina: They do. They truly do. I’m like, ‘I am clearly not related to JFK, so please don’t act like—’ [Laughter.]

Alicia: They automatically think you're rich. It's like, ‘There were a lot of splinters happening with that name...’

So, I wanted to ask first, what is your role at Brooklyn Packers?

Raina: I do pretty much all the sourcing for our various projects, mainly Brooklyn Supported Agriculture, which is our CSA. 

Alicia: Cool.

And where are you sourcing the CSA?

Raina: We work with a lot of farms in the New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania local region. So, there's some farms upstate. There's a cooperative network of farms in Pennsylvania, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, that we work with. And then also, we just recently this year started working with Brooklyn Grange. So that's super local. 

Alicia: [Laughter.] And how do you decide which farms you want to work with?

Raina: So, for the CSA in particular, we do mostly organic. So, organic farms. And then also, you want to have places to have good labor practices, like as much as you can possibly find out about that. We have some other worker-owned farms that we work with, as well. And also ones that practice good—And even if they're not organic, a lot of farms will do sustainable or integrated pest management agriculture. So just finding farms that have good sustainability practices, labor practices, and are in the region. 

Alicia: Cool.

And can you give me a little bit about your trajectory to this position and how you came to be involved in in Brooklyn Packers and also in sustainable agriculture?

Raina: Yeah.

I graduated from college in 2012, and moved to New York City pretty much a week after. I'm originally from Philadelphia. I had an unpaid internship in publishing.

Alicia: [Sighs.]

Raina: Yeah. [Laughs.]

I needed to make some actual money. So I started working as a barista. And then, I'm underemployed, underpaid, and suddenly couldn't afford to buy groceries or to eat well. And that was very frustrating. 

So I started working at a couple of different fancy, bougie little grocery stores in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and once again could only afford the stuff that they were selling because of my employee discount. And living paycheck to paycheck and being like, ‘What am I doing with my life? Why am I here?’

And I joined the Flatbush Farm Share in Flatbush, Brooklyn in 2013. And that was really life-changing because it was a sliding scale model. And at the very bottom end of the scale, you could pay week to week in cash, or you use your SNAP or EBT benefits. And as someone who was pretty much mostly living off of my barista paycheck, and my tips, this was great. And I was suddenly eating all these vegetables that I had never really heard of before or cooked with. 

And I got super involved in the CSA as a volunteer. And I was their distribution every week. And so, that's what really opened my eyes to being like, ‘Whoa. Oh, I actually can afford this. And this is finally accessible to me.’ And then also thinking about like, ‘Oh, what it must be like for people-’ Because I'm—middle class family. I have a lot of privilege in that way. Thinking about people who aren’t starting off on that level, who just are forced to basically buy the food that is around them, which often is terrible, especially in certain neighborhoods.

Basically, I started and I still continued to have so-so jobs and up until- [Loud whooshing noise.] Sorry. That was a plane. [Laughter.] Yeah, New York City. 

And then I ended up having a period of being totally unemployed and lost, and so I decided to go to grad school. [Laughs.] And so I went to NYU for food studies. And there I focused on food policy and advocacy. And I learned a lot about racism in the food system and food access in different places. 

And I also, at the same time, started working at the Greenhill Food Coop, which was a few blocks away from where I lived in Brooklyn at the time. And that was my first time being involved in a food coop. And I thought the model was really cool. And I liked the idea of everyone, of people being able to own and participate in their grocery store. 

And from there, I just got more and more into cooperatives. I read a book about worker coops, and I was like, ‘That sounds awesome not having a boss and being able to make decisions and feeling empowered to actually figure out your salary and work with people.’

But I didn't come into contact with Brooklyn Packers, until a couple years later when I started working with the Brooklyn Movement Center, as a part of the Central Brooklyn Food Coop, which is an organizing food coop in Crown Heights, Bed–Stuy, with the mission of being Black centered, Black led. And currently still organizing, but hoping—the pandemic kind of knocked the project a little off track. But hopefully, opening in some form in the next year. 

But I met Steph, who's one of the co-founders of Brooklyn Packers through that—through the Central Brooklyn Food Coop. And he's like, ‘Oh, we need someone to help us with our email communication and some other stuff. Do you want a job?’ And I was like, ‘Sure.’ [Laughter.] And so from there, I started off just doing mainly email communications and a little bit of sourcing here and there. And then kind of got more and more involved over the last few years or so. And that pretty much brings us to today. [Laughs.]

Alicia: Awesome.

And can you explain the structure of Brooklyn Packers and how it works?

Raina: Yeah, so there are six of us. We each have different roles, kind of—I do sourcing. We have someone who handles our delivery drivers and transportation logistics. We have someone else who handles when we get deliveries coming in and all that, the logistics around that. Finances, social media. So we all kind of have our different roles. 

We all have equal status, basically. And so when it comes time to make major decisions, we will discuss and vote on what to do. And those decisions could be anything from, ‘Oh, somebody is requesting a job from us. Do we want to take it?’ Or the budget for different things. We recently got the PPP loan. And so it's like, ‘Ok, what are we going to do with this money?’ And that's how we make decisions. 

And we're really pretty much in constant communication, so it's pretty easy to like on the fly, be like, ‘Oh, I need to get this done.’ Or like, ‘Oh, I need to do this.’ And we all can work it out pretty quickly with a group chat. We all get along. We all like working with each other, so that definitely helps as well. [Laughter.]

Alicia: How does Brooklyn Packers differ from other coops, like the Park Slope Food Coop? How does Brooklyn Packers differ—yeah. [Laughs.]

Raina: Food coops, they're consumer coops. So you as a person can join the Parks Slope Food Coop, you pay a small fee. And then, any member can shop. 

And I think one big difference about food coops is that the Parks Slope model, which is run basically on member labor, where if you’re a member you contribute two hours a month to some part of the stores operations. And so, that helps to keep their overhead low. They also own their building, so that also helps. So regular grocery store margins are like 40 to 60% markup, but Park Slope has like a 25% markup. I don't know how accurate that—somewhere in the 20s. But basically, it's a lot cheaper than going to a regular grocery store. 

A worker-owned coop is where all of the employees of the business are also owners. So we all co-own the business together. There's some models where you may pay in some kind of dues or at the end of the year, you might have to pay in some money to a pot that anyone, everyone has access to. But basically, we all share in the profits. We currently all are paid, paying ourselves the same rate. But then we constantly negotiate to give ourselves a raise if more money comes in. And that is the difference. 

And then there we are in the process of figuring out what our process will be in the future for bringing in new members. Is there a trial period? The nice thing, and also the hard part, is that you can kind of make things up yourself. So we could have a trial period when we want new members to come in 60 to 90 days, and then they are a provisional member. And then we would then vote, if they wanted to come over—if they wanted to become a full member, then we would vote on that, etc. So there’s a lot of voting, a lot of meetings. 

Alicia: Right. 

I wanted to ask also why packers is in the name? [Laughs.]

Raina: That's our primary thing that we do, is packing. I think a lot of people don't really think about this part of the food system. There's like, ‘Oh, we have farms. And then, you have your grocery store.’ But there's a whole lot of stuff that goes on in between. 

There's a thing called last mile delivery, which is like, ‘All right, we have all this food at this warehouse, but we need to get it to the grocery store. We need to get it to this bodega. How does that happen?’ And it's actually kind of a logistical challenge in a lot of ways because the routes are smaller, and there's a lot more going on. So we do a lot of that. 

We work with small food, other small food companies if they need stuff packed and then delivered to places. We do our own farmshare. So basically, the way that works is we get all the raw materials in bulk, and then people order and then we pack it out into bags, and send it off to either home deliveries or pickup locations. 

And we also were doing—and still are, we did this a lot more over the last year—working with different mutual aid groups and community organizations on their food distributions that they were doing throughout the pandemic.

Alicia: And I wanted to ask, especially since you're in charge of sourcing, there's so many people who are what I would call utilitarian thinkers who say that the miles that food moves don't have that big of an impact. Why is it so important to the mission of Brooklyn Packers to support local farms?

Raina: First of all, I think supporting local farms then means that there will continue to be farms in this area.

Washington state and New York state grow the most apples. As New York state, we could most definitely source all of our apples from New York. There's really no reason to go outside of New York to get apples. You'll see apples from Washington, from all these other places, probably because it's cheaper or they have deals with these big corporations, stuff like that. And that's kind of crazy to me: Why wouldn't you first put your money into a more local economy than sending it far, far away?

Having more local farms means there's more jobs, ’cause not only are there farmers, but you need people to deliver. You need people to pack. You need people to pick up the stuff, and you need people to organize it. And so that just keeps the jobs right here in the area. And also even thinking in terms of the environment, shipping something from California is going to take a lot more fuel than it is to get it from three hours north. So that is also a big part of it. 

Alicia: Right.

And how does a worker-owned food coop like Brooklyn Packers work toward ideals of food sovereignty? And also, what does food sovereignty mean to you?

Raina: Yeah.

Food sovereignty is just having control over and having a say in the food that you eat and where it comes from and what is around you. And here, I live in Crown Heights, which is rapidly gentrifying. And there is so much food available, but some of it is not accessible to longtime residents or even to me. If I see a cafe or something and I look inside and there's only white people, I'm not gonna go in there. And so there's still so many barriers for getting food.

And it would be in part of, kind of a food coop and community gardens—it’s just nice to have a place where you can go, and you feel like you belong there. You feel you have a say, feel you are part of what's going on, which is also a very important part of food and eating and community. 

Well, first of all, we all live in Brooklyn, in central Brooklyn. And so, we are very committed to this neighborhood and to Brooklyn. Our co-founder is starting a farm in Massachusetts, right over the New York border. And so, we are hoping to start sourcing from them pretty soon. They're going right now, so that's pretty exciting. And that's going to be a Black-led worker-owned farm as well. And we've also been building connections with other Black and POC farmers in the region. And so we're hoping to also boost them and be able to support them financially, and they help support us as well. 

We are part of a growing network of food industry worker-owned coops, and one of the cooperative principles is supporting other coops whenever possible. So we bank with the credit union, and we work with another community chef coop. We're going to be working with them on some recipe food box distribution soon. And so it's things like that that keep you—there's a lot of networking, and just making sure that we keep these connections, local and within our little coop family. 

Alicia: Right.

You say working with more worker-owned places. How are you seeing this approach expand in food? Are there more farms opening? Are there more restaurants? What is the future of the worker-owned food enterprise looking like?

Raina: Yeah, I think people are a lot more interested, first of all. I know especially over the last year with people losing jobs and people getting fired, or in—people who have to work in the service industry not being treated fairly. And people just deciding to leave their jobs altogether, because they're not getting anything out of it. So I think more and more people are realizing that you can have a voice in the labor movement. And while it's not easy to take your—buy out your business and turn it into a worker coop, I think there's a lot more energy and activity around that. 

And I think it's especially important in the food industry where there's so much exploitation, and where people get paid terrible wages in every part of the food chain, being able to take some of that back and to set your own prices and to be like, ‘Ok, no, this is how much we're gonna make for this, ’cause we need to feed ourselves and our families.’ It's really important to be able to do that. 

And so I think it's only growing. There's a robust network, worker cooperative network in New York City. There's a ton of worker coops in Baltimore. Boston has a lot, and Northern California. And more and more elected officials are starting to become interested in worker coops and in supporting them. And so I think it's only going to expand.

Alicia: What kind of policy would you like to see, to not just support worker-owned coops—that yes—but also, what is necessary to move people towards supporting these kinds of efforts, caring about local food? What is needed on that kind of policy level? 

Raina: Policy-wise, I think, more support. There's the minority and women-owned business certification that is very—a long, bureaucratic, difficult application process for worker coops, especially, because you have to get—every owner has to fill out all the stuff. And sometimes if you're in a coop that has like 25 owners, that's hard. 

And the other thing is that a lot of worker coops in New York, and I think throughout the country, a lot of them are run by women of color. A lot of them are undocumented. So that's another barrier. And a lot of people couldn't apply for the loans that they were giving out over the last year, or they couldn't get on unemployment. And so there was a lot of financial assistance that people needed that they just couldn't get access to, despite being a business owner and despite living here in the country. 

And I think education is another important—Not just even on a policy level but on a—just an average, regular person level. So for example, we say that we never mark up food, but that—if you look at something and you have sticker shock about the prices, because we need to charge a fair wage for our labor. And so, we'll discuss amongst ourselves like, ‘Ok, this is how much we need to get paid for this.’ And then I think once you explain that to people, they're like, ‘Actually, this makes sense, because people are used to food being cheap.’ And even though the prices have been going up, it's still not as expensive as it should be, really, when you think about all the people who are involved in getting food from the farm to your plate. And so just constantly reminding people that there are actual people doing work behind the food that's getting to you is important. 

And I think also people don't understand or—everyone, a lot of people are in this current mode of thinking of capitalism. You have a boss and you're an employee, and there's just things that you can and can't do. But I think that's also shifting with fast food worker strikes and farm worker strikes, and people walking out of their job. All that kind of stuff. People are realizing like, ‘Oh, you don't have to be-’ Or it's not right that we're stuck living like this. It's not right that one person at the top makes millions and millions of dollars, while everyone, other people at the very bottom, make next to nothing. It doesn't make sense. And so I think just constantly putting it out in the open and making people aware of it is also going to help.

Alicia: Yeah, for sure. 

’Cause I talk about food media a lot, do you feel that there is a space that has been talking about these issues, or a publication that has been talking about these issues, in a way that does help people understanding these—what's going on and how many people it takes to get food to a plate and how the food system really works? Is that happening?

Raina: Civil Eats always has a lot of great articles. We were profiled last summer in Good Food Jobs in their blog, and I noticed that they have been doing a lot of—they've changed their posting requirements for jobs. I think in a few years, they are even raising the minimum wage for their job post—it's $15 now, but I think they're raising it to $20 or something like that. And they have a list of criteria for the jobs that you have to post. And I think that's amazing and should be the standard for all food job listings. Those are the two I can think of off the top of my head. 

We also were recently part of a series on worker coops in the food industry on The Real News Network. And they have been doing a lot of good reporting on worker coops.That's all I can think of off the top of my head. 

Also, this does bring—makes me think of something else, which is that last year, in the wake of the George Floyd murder and all the protests, we were getting a lot of attention because of being Black-led coop. And so I think media attention is good, but at the same time, it is kind of like, ‘Are these people profiling us just because we're majority Black or—and what's the motive?’ And then, we did see a huge increase in business during that time as well. And it's kind of like, ‘Ok, how much of this is people feeling like, ‘Blacks farmshare to support’’ and how much is it—? 

I think there's always that kind of tension as well, which is we obviously want people to know this is a Black organization. But I also want people to support us because we're good at what we do, and because we have a high quality product and because we stand for all these other important issues. And so, not just because we're Black. So I think yeah, there's always like that weird tension. [Laughter.]

Alicia: That brings up for me also the question of how in a worker coop and it, it's still focused on getting people to buy something. But how is the relationship in a worker-owned coop not a pure consumerist action? How does it get beyond that?

Raina: Yeah, that's a great question. [Laughter.] Great question.

I mean, obviously, it's impossible to live outside of capitalism. And that is the part that kind of sucks because in my perfect world I wouldn't have to think about money or it wouldn't exist or—[Laughs.] I think it's a lot of it, or the way I think of it, is that it's about fairness. 

In a lot of service jobs and retail stuff, it's ‘the customer's always right, the customer is always right.’ And you're always having to think about the customer or the person buying your product, and you never can think about yourself. And I feel I'm always encouraging my coworkers, or we’re discussing things like ‘Ok, we also have to make a wage, that is enough for us to survive here.’ As much as you want to be accessible to people, it's like, ‘We’re part of this as well. And we also have to live in Brooklyn. [Laughs.] And so we also need to make enough money to sustain ourselves and to sustain this business.’

But we also are trying to think about ways to make the farm share accessible. So we've been talking about doing a sliding scale model for that, which is going to take some work. But that's something we really want to do. We also want to be able to accept SNAP and EBT, which is complicated, largely because the whole process is complicated. We do a lot of work with mutual aid groups, community organizations who get a lot of their money through grants. It feels good to know that we're getting food to people who really need it in that sense, and to be able to continue working with them. 

We raised our prices back in March, just because of the reality of life. And that's just the kind of thing that happens, and you just have to explain it and be like, ‘Well, in order to continue doing what we do in the best way possible, we're gonna have to raise the prices a little bit.’ And sometimes, it's not gonna be affordable for people. And then other times, we will be like, ‘Yeah, this is great.’ That's just the reality. It's impossible to avoid, basically.

Alicia: What is Brooklyn Packers planning? It's funny, because I'm asking people this question. We're not post pandemic, but we are in a period of some sort of transition. And so, what is your hope and what are your plans for the rest of 2021? 

Raina: Yeah.

Well, we're excited for this partner farm to get fully up and running. Our goal is to one day become truly Black and brown, POC farmer-sourced. And so, we're making moves on that. 

We want to continue working with other businesses and local organizations in Brooklyn. We are hoping to expand the farm share. It's kind of a weird time now. People being vaccinated and the reopening of New York, New York City, has also funnily enough come at the same time as all the best produce. But now it's people are traveling finally, or are going to eat at restaurants. People aren’t cooking. And there's been several heat waves already. People aren’t at home as much, which is kind of disappointing. But I think these will really pick up in the fall, when people go back to school or go back to the office more regularly. So I'm kind of interested to see what happens then. 

And also just figuring out ways to keep getting people fresh food, even in the middle of the winter. Last year was our first year running the—running Brooklyn Cooperative Action Center into the whole year. We used to take a winter break. This year, we didn't. And it went pretty well. So I'm looking forward to seeing that grow even more. 

And also to continue being involved in the New York City and national worker coop solidarity economy scene, where things are always happening. 

Alicia: Well, thank you so much for taking the time today to chat. Have a great rest of your day. 

Raina: Yeah, this is great.

This Friday’s paid-subscriber interview will feature Camilla Wynne, a master preserver based in Toronto, whose book Jam Bake: Inspired Recipes for Creating and Baking with Preserves is a treasure trove of recipes, insight, and instruction.

Note: I’m adjusting how I share recipes—thanks for bearing with me on that, but it’ll be cool when they start to come out! I promise!

Annual subscriptions are $30; monthly, $5.

Nothing, I think. I could be wrong!

Still doing so much prep for interviews and getting back into working on my book, which will be my focus from August to the end of the year. For fun, I did read Second Place by Rachel Cusk—adored it, predictably.

I did a baked ziti, eggplant parm feast. I did an aperitivo hour where I made tostones, potato chips dusted in truffle salt, and roasted olives with lemon zest and chili salt. I made an acerola compote to top lemon-cornmeal cake, above—when I get that all correct, I’ll post a recipe.