Food Co-ops, Food Hubs, and Food Democracy: An Interview with John Curl
[Editor's note: This is the second part of a two part interview. Read part one here.]
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
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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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