Food Co-ops, Food Hubs, and Food Democracy: An Interview with John Curl
[Editor's note: this is the first part of a two-part series. Read part two here.]
Jim Johnson, GEO: 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.”
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.
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