In her four years with CoFED, Anna Isaacs has not only witnessed CoFED's growth but has led that development with her diverse talents and keen insight. In a short interview, we asked CoFED's new Director 3 questions about the cooperative and food justice movements, and found out what keeps her up at night.
1. What life experiences are you bringing to your role as Acting Director?
I’ve been working in and developing cooperatives for 8 years. It all started when I was doing research in Venezuela, on their government’s investment in social programs and infrastructure to benefit people in poverty. A form of Participatory Budgeting had been implemented in most communities and many cooperatively-owned businesses and farming communities were being formed. While there, I worked in CECOSESOLA, a joint urban-rural association of mostly food and health care cooperatives that serve 55,000 families weekly.
Around that same time, the U.S. was experiencing a bust in Capitalism’s cycle – the Housing Market Crash of 2008. My parents were both in that industry, and back home in Kentucky, they were losing the family-owned business that my dad had been building from a young age. I had to get a job fast and so did janitorial services at my college’s dormitories. In my search for a more empowering work environment, I found a work-study job at the student-run café and, inspired by my time in Venezuela, helped transition it to a worker-collective.
America loves to talk about democracy but when it comes to the workplace, these institutions that we spend most of our waking life at in order to sustain ourselves and families, look like the opposite of democracy. The experience of working in a democratic workplace transformed and empowered me. I took pride in feeding our campus community nutritious foods and the fact that our restaurant’s purchases were helping stabilize other women, minority, and small-producer businesses in town. To me, cooperative development is a form of economic development that helps us reclaim ownership over our livelihoods, which translates to claiming ownership of our lives!
2. What social issues drive you and your work?
I think the conversation around food justice gets me fired up because it all comes down to ownership, having the ability and agency to produce and consume food. We currently exist in a food system that is basically an integrated chain of corporate powers. Rather than provide for all, it is designed to create profit for a few by exploiting many. A child growing up today has 1 in 3 chance of developing diabetes; for African American and Latino kids that’s a 1 in 2 chance.
And so food justice finds a perfect home within coops, because cooperatives are community-owned businesses that are accountable to the needs of their community and governed by them. For example, the Renaissance Community Coop in Greensboro, North Carolina is currently breaking ground to alleviate an 18-year food desert and bring good jobs, healthy living options, and community wealth to a neighborhood that struggles with obesity, diabetes, unemployment, and poverty.
Cooperatives can provide economic engines to fuel our social movements, because they organize resources and funding, so that working people can “own the change.” Jessica Gordon Nembhard explains this well when talking about how when black sharecropping communities in the south were registering to vote in the Civil Rights Era, white landowners could threaten eviction since sharecroppers didn’t own their homes and the land they were farming, which posed a real risk to one’s political involvement.
So in 1966 women sharecroppers in Alabama established Freedom Quilting Bee to sell hand-made quilts. With their generated income, they collectively bought 23 acres of land. Evicted sharecropping families could then go stay at this coop until they had recovered and were back on their feet, helping fuel their fight for civil rights.
3. How has the organization grown since you first joined? How do you envision it will grow in the next few years?
CoFED was launched as a national nonprofit 5 years ago by the group of UC Berkeley graduates who successfully kept a corporate fast food chain out of their student center, and instead created a student-run, real foods grocery store. I first joined CoFED as a worker in January 2012. At that time, we were focusing on building a collaborative resource and knowledge exchange network to address the issues of food quality and insecurity that continue to burden students on college campuses.
Since then, CoFED has created our own business development curriculum, which is used at our signature 9-day, in-person event, the Summer Institute. The curriculum received such positive reviews from students that we made it available in our online store. Farzana was our amazing first Executive Director and her vision of a racially and economically equitable world helped direct CoFED’s programs, staffing, and communications to have equity at the heart of everything we do. I have learned a ton from Farzana, and am thankful she has invested in my growth.
My vision for CoFED lies in the questions that keep me up at night: How can we eat, not from the hand that exploits our communities and extracts wealth from our very plates? How can we eat, not from the hand that oppresses our brothers and sisters? How can we eat from our own hands, linked in solidarity with workers and producers across the world? To be active participators and agent-filled owners of our food system.
I believe our community of supporters will begin to see CoFED’s impact coalesce over the next few years to 1) reach broader audiences, 2) form deeper partnerships, and ultimately 3) develop more cooperatives! We will leverage the power that colleges have as key economic institutions to divest from corporate interests, and re-invest in local economies and cooperative development. I see myself and CoFED being in service to its campus-community network, and look forward to doing transformative work together.
To get in touch with Anna, feel free to email her at [email protected]