Food Co-ops, Food Hubs, and Food Democracy…

From Grassroots Economic Organizing

An Interview with John Curl* by Jim Johnson…

JJ: A colleague of mine (who works professionally to help new co-ops start up) tells me that there is currently a burst of new food co-op development in the US – the number of food co-ops is growing again, and there are currently dozens (perhaps hundreds) of active start-up groups. But the natural and organic food market in the US is growing faster still, which means that food co-ops are actually losing market share. Overall, could you provide more perspective on the impact of the “mainstreaming” of natural and organic food on food co-ops; not just economically but also in terms of the impact on cooperative values?

John Curl: The mainstreaming of natural and organic foods pulled out the linchpin of the food co-op movement that began in the 1970s. Mainstreaming served to rip the integrity out of natural/organic, turn it into an advertising slogan, and flood the marketplace with plastic and ersatz versions. At the same time it served to diminish and marginalize the movement for economic justice and workplace democracy, which is at the heart of the co-op movement.

Food co-ops and natural/organic foods were actually two social movements which overlapped to a great extent when they both burst forth in the 1970s. During those years they seemed joined at the hip, and common wisdom often proclaimed that the corporate food establishment by its very nature could not assimilate natural and organic foods.

At that time natural and organic foods were unavailable in most of the country. The organic farming movement was decades old, but organic produce was not retailed in supermarkets. “Health food” stores had been around for decades, but they mainly sold pills and nutritional supplements, and almost none carried produce or bulk dry goods. Farmers markets were the primary outlets for organics, and these were actually banned in California (except for one in San Francisco, which had been grandfathered in).

Natural and organic foods were the motor by which the food co-op movement was able to spring up so quickly in numerous places of the 1970s. According to one scholarly estimate, between 1969 and 1979, close to 10,000 food co-ops were established in the US. The vast majority of these were very small and started with minimal capital investment. It was DIY by groups of friends and neighbors, the vast majority of whom were in their 20s. Most of these co-ops were better described as food clubs or “food conspiracies.” A few people working out of somebody’s house or garage, who would gather others around them. Some wound up opening small stores. The movement also involved numerous small farms and distributors, some of which started as cooperatives or collectives, and with minimal capital. Many of the people involved thought of themselves as reinventing the entire food system. However, not all the farms, distributors or stores involved were co-ops. Quite a few were single proprietorships, or partnerships, or family farms, or mom-and-pop stores, etc. There were debates in the movement about whether to deal only with co-ops and collectives, but for the most part it was a big tent, and all who were doing righteous work in natural/organic food were included

Many of these early food co-ops and collectives were short-lived, but a significant number survived and evolved into successful businesses. Some eventually became closer to consumer co-ops; some retained elements of worker control; some still relied on volunteer work, and some didn’t.

As natural/organic food became mainstreamed, many of the early food co-ops and collectives failed. Their greatest draw was gone. Farmers markets became more widespread (and legalized in California). Undercut also was the co-ops’ social mission as schools and prototypes of workplace democracy and economic justice.

However, mainstream natural/organic eventually also reached certain limits. Increasingly focused on more affluent communities, supermarkets abandoned numerous less-affluent communities, particularly the inner cities and more isolated rural areas, which became or remained “food deserts.” These are still opportunity sites for food co-ops today. The movement needs to refocus on its basic mission of empowering and mobilizing communities in need of healthy food and economic justice. Co-ops cannot and should not try to compete with upscale markets.

JJ: In a market where natural and organic food are fully mainstreamed, what becomes the“unique selling proposition” of food co-ops? How do they differentiate themselves, what do they deliver that people value? Do you see food co-ops as adequately positioned right now to make that case?

JC: A key to success in many locations is becoming more than a grocery store, becoming a community center. Across America, Main Street has been decimated. There is often no longer a downtown that serves as the heart of a community. Private malls have replaced public spaces. That offers a huge need to be filled. Further, the mainstream food system does not reach everywhere. There are numerous glaring gaps in rural and lower-income areas. As energy prices continue to increase and living-wage jobs become scarcer, many people can no longer afford to travel long distances to shop. The food justice movement has sprung up in “food deserts” in poorer areas. Although small co-op groceries cannot beat the prices or variety of megastores, they can find numerous opportunities in locations not served by the chains.

I’ll give you a couple of successful examples: Dixon Cooperative Market in New Mexico, and Mandela Foods Cooperative in Oakland, California.

Dixon Cooperative Market is located in a village of about 800, in a sparsely populated region of New Mexico, a 20 minute drive in either direction from two larger towns. Residents are primarily old Hispanic families and more recently “Anglos.” Dixon had no grocery store, so residents had to drive to either Espanola or Taos, to shop at a supermarket or natural foods grocery. In 2000, one resident announced an open meeting for people interested in forming a food co-op, from which emerged a core group of four. The organizers educated themselves with advice from La Montanita Co-op, which successfully operates stores in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Gallup. They sold shares and received a small grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The co-op incorporated, and in 2005 opened in a 1,000 square foot portion of a vacant storefront, renovated by community volunteers. First-year sales were $126,000. Today the co-op is the center of the village’s community life, with a lively café and musical events They offer natural foods and a full line of conventional groceries, with an emphasis on locally produced foods, and organize a weekly farmers’ market, where locals sell fresh produce, homemade tamales, tortillas, jams, jellies, pies, bread. Its paid staff of 5 still receive assistance from a team of member volunteers. Sales in 2010 were over $500,000.

Mandela Foods Cooperative is a worker- and community-owned, full-service grocery and nutrition education center in a low-income, predominantly African-American neighborhood in Oakland, which opened in 2010. Mandela works to empower residents to build a local economy, increase food access, and support family farmers. It sees itself as a catalyst for social change, bringing healthy food options and prosperity to a neglected neighborhood, historically underserved in grocery retail. With the slogan “Food, People, Power,” it offers fresh and affordable locally-grown foods, nutrition education classes, employment opportunities, and occasional musical events filling their street. They purchase from small farms, local and cooperative businesses, non-GMO growers, organic producers and fair trade organizations. The co-op is part of Mandela MarketPlace, a non-profit started in 2001 and incorporated in 2005, that uses a community-driven economic framework to improve health, create wealth and build assets through economic opportunity and empowerment for inner-city residents and businesses, and local family farms. They also operate market stands weekly at senior centers and residential facilities, where seniors can conveniently purchase farm fresh produce and wholesome basic staples at affordable prices.

JJ: My colleague informs me that a new food co-op start-up needs to project a minimum of 2.5 million in sales to be feasible, and thus needs to target customers with an income between $50,000 and $150,000. How do you see cooperative values and the historical vision of food co-ops impacted by this (seemingly) necessary pursuit of more affluent customers and scale? How do you see scale impacting ownership culture and member participation?

JC: We’ve got to keep our goals in focus. The cooperative movement is part of a larger movement for social justice. Those figures may be correct within a certain context, but a start-up co-op grocery store in a higher income community adds nothing to the struggle for social justice, so that is not an area in which we should focus our energies. There are only around 350 co-op food stores in the US today. Innumerable lower-income communities and neighborhoods could benefit from a food co-op, but not one based on that upscale model. Higher-income people do not need food co-ops and few members would participate as volunteers.

We are in a very precarious economic situation. Climate change is threatening farming worldwide. High tech has created a situation where increasingly fewer people are needed for production, while large numbers are marginalized. Many will never find adequate work in the mainstream economy and will have to creatively invent their own economy. The population continues to increase. The corporate capitalist system is not geared to bring prosperity or even a minimally decent life to increasingly large segments of the population.

The movement has to return to its roots. Co-ops exist to fill needs, and the world is full of needs all around us. That’s why Food Hubs have become widespread. Activists need to look around at the existing fragments of their local food system, see what is lacking, and organize to provide it.

That’s why farmers markets have become so important. Farmers markets in the East Bay where I live, are almost all organized by nonprofits, and usually include vendors offering produce, prepared foods, and arts and crafts. They often have live music and other cultural and educational events. It does not matter one iota that they are not organized by farmer co-ops. Nonprofits, community organizations, and municipal governments all make contributions and are partners in the movement. Our movement is a big tent of socially responsible organizations and enterprises. Pure co-ops per se cannot do everything and should not try. We are not in competition with nonprofits with social missions. We are collaborators with them.

For example, the Ecology Center, a nonprofit, organizes the farmers markets in Berkeley and Albany, California. It also runs Berkeley’s curbside recycling, and hosts a wide range of gardening classes. They operate a food justice program called Farm Fresh Choice, which makes organic, regionally grown, and culturally appropriate foods convenient for purchase by low-income youth and their families at after school programs through partnerships with local farmers, along with education about nutrition and cultural relationships to foods. One of the farms that they partner with is AMO Organics, a cooperative group of 12 Latino farmers, who farm together on 70 acres near Gilroy. Each member-farmer has their own specialty, but all grow many different fruits and vegetables. All were once farmworkers, and were trained to be organic farmers at the Rural Development Center, another nonprofit which is part of the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA).

As the economic crisis continues to deepen, innumerable people and groups will self-organize into various forms of cooperatives, because they need mutual aid for survival. Almost all of this will be done on a shoestring, and much in the “informal” or underground economy. We should do as much as we can to facilitate this and to provide backup and information. But we do not need to worry about the difficulties of organizing food co-ops in upscale communities.

JJ: Although food co-ops in the ‘70s had a very strong emphasis on empowering workers as well as consumers, most food co-ops in the US are now consumer-owned, with a relatively traditional, hierarchical workplace. How would you describe the impact of this on cooperative values? Does it contribute to a loss of ownership culture? Would/does unionization of the workforce help?

JC: Since most of the 1970s co-ops were very small operations, it was easier to institute non-hierarchical workplaces. Small food co-op buying clubs are really not in a different situation today. Larger operations require more structure, but one can see how this is done in the Rainbow Grocery Cooperative model, where they use work teams. Of course Rainbow is a worker co-op, not a consumer co-op. Some 1970s co-ops experimented with a hybrid of a consumer co-op and a worker co-op. The exact structure varied, but the result was a large degree of worker self-management over daily operations, while the consumer membership joined in setting policies and long term goals. In this model both workers and consumers were co-op members, with different types of membership. These had varying degrees of success, and were not easy to maintain over a long period of time. The government also made it harder to use volunteer workers, through inflexible tax, liability, and workplace employment rules. While most food co-ops today have a hierarchical structure, so do most farmer co-ops and many other types of cooperatives, so it is far from unusual or unique.

Nonetheless, the abandonment by most food co-ops today of the collective structures and hybrid worker-consumer structures that were developed in the 1970s is a step backward.

The movement for workplace democracy has continued strongly in worker cooperatives, which are now more widespread than at any time in over a century, and are hotly debated around the country. Worker co-ops have kept the issues of workplace democracy on the table. While corporate capitalism has pretensions about being connected with democracy, in reality it is an authoritarian structure, and anti-democratic in every way.

In unionized co-ops the relationship between union and management is often little different from a corporate enterprise. In the old Berkeley Co-op, for example, many of the unionized workers were never even interested in becoming co-op members. Yet, some unions today are recognizing that many of the old parameters of American unionization are obsolete. An expansion of the union movement’s responsibilities beyond their traditional role, can be seen in the ongoing dialog around the United Steel Workers Union and Mondragon Cooperatives collaboration, in discussions about opening cooperative steel foundries in the Midwest. As currently planned, the union will play a role similar to the Social Council in the Mondragon model, facilitating communication between management and worker-members, and representing the worker-owners perspective in discussions, usually focusing on working conditions, work relations, health and safety, work calendar and staffing, a sort of collective bargaining committee. Hopefully, we’re beginning to move beyond the concept of a permanent conflict of interests between workers on one side, and owners/management on the other. That remains a permanent conflict of interests in capitalist enterprises, where the bottom line is private profit, but not in cooperatives, where the triple bottom line is “For the workers, for the community, for the environment.”

Jim Johnson, GEO: So few consumers see food as political, which is all the more remarkable when you consider that practically everything about food is political. Where do we stand on the role of food co-ops in raising consumer awareness? Are we gaining or losing ground? How?

John Curl: Food politics is often a major news story these days, so I would dispute the generalization that most consumers do not see food as political. Whether we’re gaining or losing ground is hard to access, but we’re still in the thick of the struggle. For example, the labeling of genetically modified food was among the pledges Obama made during his first run for president. The great majority of food co-ops around the country are very vocal in their support of mandatory GMO labeling. Here in California in the last election we just had a proposition for GMO labeling. It was very controversial and hotly debated in all the media, and was leading in the polls for most of the campaign. Prop. 37 was narrowly defeated only through a last-minute, highly-funded, deceptive advertising barrage from agribusiness and agro-chemical giants including Monsanto and DuPont, which outspent the “Yes on 37” campaign 5 to 1. Many food co-ops contributed to the Yes on Prop 37 campaign. The latest report I’ve heard about GMO labeling, is that a deal is being cut on the national level; we’ll see if it has any teeth or if will just be another greenwashing.

Food co-ops have always been highly active in promoting higher consciousness of the politics of food. True, many people are lulled today into a false sense of abundance, so consumer awareness about food politics should surely be higher.

But, as mentioned before, a crisis is brewing. We’re in a very precarious situation. Climate change is threatening farming worldwide. US commodity markets are toys of speculators. Food import costs are increasing. We used to have a national grain reserve, but that was recklessly disbanded.

Most food co-ops today have educational programs about the politics of food. On the web site of almost every food co-op one can find consumer education in the form of articles, pamphlets, and classes. Wedge Community Co-op in Milwaukee and Mississippi Market Co-op in St. Paul, for example, runs a successful educational program about food and farming to thousands of area school children, called Midwest Food Connection.

JJ: One of the most frightening developments of the last ten years has been the near-complete loss of the US cooperative food warehousing and distribution system. We are now almost completely dependent on one profiteering company, UNFI, for natural and organic grocery products. Can you reflect on the loss of this system, how it might’ve been prevented, and how we might rebuild it or some equivalent of it? Can food hubs really help us get back to a cooperative distribution system?

JC: UNFI isn’t quite alone; there’s a second giant, KeHE (Tree of Life, etc). Some smaller regional organic and co-op distributors are still functioning. In the current economic system, there is almost no way to prevent the monopolization process. The corporate system pretends to be for diversity and competition, but in practice the bigger always tries to swallow the smaller, and usually succeeds.

However, let’s not overstate the level of organization of the cooperative distribution and warehousing system that UNFI swallowed. Almost all began from tiny operations, organized and run by a handful of dedicated visionaries. Many were shaky and improvised throughout their existence. Regional distributors owned by co-ops often complained that their own co-op store owners often undercut them by buying from other sources.

UNFI itself began very small, by an ambitious entrepreneur who saw the potential of natural/organic food distribution and took advantage of the weaknesses of the existing co-op enterprises.

Here is my synopsis of a revealing oral history narrative of where UNFI originated, according to Amigo Bob Cantisano, a highly-respected pioneer in California organic farming, once somewhat of a hippie:

In May, 1970, shortly after participating in the first Earth Day in San Francisco, Cantisano moved to a commune at Lake Tahoe. An old fashioned health food store was in town, but no natural foods market. So he and a friend put up a notice on a bulletin board asking for people to start a food buying club. Fifteen joined. Cantisano drove a truck to San Francisco, picked up produce at the Alemany Farmers Market—the only legal farmers market in California at the time—brought it back and divided it. He became the food club coordinator. They soon had hundreds of members. They started driving around to farms, dealing directly with farmers, and traded with other underground distributors. Cantisano and his friends developed a growing business of transporting and selling organic foods wholesale to other co-ops and natural food stores. Meanwhile, the food co-op moved into a storefront in Tahoe Vista, on the North Shore, and became We the People Natural Foods Co-op. Cantisano and other members of his commune were the co-managers. The store became successful, but Cantisano left and went into organic farming. The store took over the distribution company, which then merged with Sierra People’s Produce, the project of a man named Lee Mays, and the new entity became Sierra People’s Warehouse. Mays bought out the co-op and turned it into an individual proprietorship. Then Mays merged with Sacramento People’s Produce, run by a man named Michael Funk. They worked it together for a while, then Funk bought out May, moved to Nevada City and in 1976 renamed it Mountain People’s Produce. In the early 1990s Mountain People’s Produce acquired the distribution wings of North Coast Co-op and Puget Consumers Co-op, then continued to grow and swallow small distributors until it covered most of the Western states. In 1996 Mountain People merged with Norman A. Cloutier’s Cornucopia Natural Foods, founded in 1977 and serving the Eastern states, also after having eaten many small distributors. Their new entity, United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI), was the first natural products distributorship with national scope. UNFI continued to eat regional distributors and wholesalers in the US and Canada until it came to dominate natural/organic food distribution. That’s the predatory way American entrepreneurship works.

Yes, food hubs can help us get back to a more cooperative distribution system. When they’re working correctly, they serve to fill in missing pieces, and pull together already-existing elements into local and regional food systems. Creative activists need to analyze their local systems, identify the gaps, and find ways to fill them.

JJ: The Food Sovereignty movement seems like a very compelling and natural idea that is getting a lot of grassroots support – but it’s also diametrically opposed to an investor-driven, profit-centered food system. Do you have any general insights on the Food Sovereignty movement here in the US and around the world?

JC: The US food co-op movement, still staggering from the corporate takeover of the natural/organic movement of the 1970s, is connected fraternally with innumerable local food movements worldwide. International corporate control of the world food system affects almost every person and community. The Food Sovereignty movement is composed of those numerous local opposition movements fighting back together and learning from each other. Its goal is to empower local systems which are being destroyed worldwide by domination of the corporate industrial food system, facilitated by multinational trade treaties and the so-called “green revolution.”

Food Sovereignty is a program for rural revitalization based on equitable distribution of farmland and water, farmer control over seeds, support for collectively owned farms and fisheries, and productive small-scale farms supplying consumers with healthy, locally grown food.

In contrast the “green revolution” failed to reduce hunger and poverty because it further concentrated resources, power and money in the hands of corporations and large farms, while making small farmers dependent on their expensive chemical products and artificial seeds.The “green revolution” did nothing to make purchasing power more equitable, while exacerbating the lack of access to land, so large numbers of people had no money to buy food, and no place to grow their own.

In a number of Latin American countries today, Food Sovereignty’s alternative systems of local trade and distribution have helped many to move away from dependence on multinational corporations for food.

The Food Sovereignty movement is extremely constructive and hopeful, and we should support it in every way.
*John Curl passed his childhood winters on icy Manhattan streets and summers in steamy New Jersey pine forest farm country. A war baby of World War II, his parents were Irish-Catholic, English-Protestant, and Romanian-Austrian Jew, with one grandfather a Republican, the other a Communist, his parents New Deal Democrats, and on Thanksgiving they all got together and actually had a good time. The astrologers say his chart is a Grand Trine. He lived in a Sixties rural commune in Colorado, worked on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, and has practiced custom woodworking at Heartwood Cooperative Woodshop in Berkeley, CA for over 35 years. He is chairman of West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC), promoting arts and industries in the manufacturing zone to the dismay of gentrifying developers, and has served as a Berkeley planning commissioner to the consternation of some elected officials. He is a fixture on the committee organizing the annual Berkeley Indigenous Peoples Day Pow Wow. He has a degree in Comparative Literature from CCNY (CUNY) and is a longtime board member of PEN Oakland and PEN USA.