After the turbulent decade of the 1960’s in the United States, political activism moved from the streets into the kitchens of the generation then entering their twenties and thirties. In the 1970s consumer food cooperatives sprouted up in communities all across America, both weekly pre-order co-ops, where foods bought in bulk were broken down and picked up in different members’ homes in turn, and storefront co-ops, where members who worked in the store a certain number of hours received their food at cheaper prices than did people who walked in off the street.
Not everyone joined a food co-op for the same reasons. The lowest common denominator was the lower cost to the consumer achieved by cutting out the middleman. As long as people were willing or able to contribute a few hours of labor every so often they could receive high-quality foods for wholesale prices. For many, the most important reason for participation was the access to high-quality organic, or at least, minimally processed foods at affordable prices. The 1970’s saw a heightened awareness of the replacement of small, local farms by giant agribusinesses and the mass production of processed foods stuffed with artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. The 70’s were the era of vegan and macrobiotic diets, soy proteins, and Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet. Instead of the anti-war slogans of the 60’s, young people were plastering their car bumpers with stickers asking archly, Have You Washed Your Tofu Today?
Many people were becoming vegetarians and eating lower on the food chain, not only for health reasons but because they were aware that people in the U.S. were consuming many times more than their fair share of the world’s resources while others went hungry. They joined food cooperatives in order to live the change they wanted to bring about in the world. The popular food co-op slogan, “Food for People, Not for Profit,” expressed their values. They wanted to develop models of cooperation, not competition: collectively owned worker-controlled businesses and consumer food, energy, housing cooperatives. They were aware that many of yesterday’s activists had become today’s health food fanatics, and were concerned the cooperative movement would soon lose its political edge. One poster that expressed this concern with humor read, “While you’re eating your organic raisins, remember: you still have to smash the state.” Food Not Bombs, founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1980, rejected yuppie complacency, delivering free food to people who couldn’t afford to buy it no matter how cheap it was.
I participated in my first food cooperative in 1975 as a member of a co-op house in college, where we saved considerable amounts of money on rent in the university-owned house by contributing our labor to house-cleaning and home improvements and on board by doing our own cooking and joining a food cooperative as a group. I didn’t participate in picking up the co-op’s food because I soon learned that if I volunteered to cook dinner for forty once a week, I would never have to do the more unpleasant chores like cleaning the bathrooms. But life in that co-op house requires a story of its own.
My first experience as an active member of a pre-order food co-op was in the West Concord Food and Friendship Co-op. Every week we picked up our orders of whole grains, nuts, oils, dried fruits, seeds, tofu, yogurt, cheese, and peanut butter, bringing our own re-used quart and gallon jars and plastic containers. When it was our turn to place and break down the order we collated all the previous week’s orders, placed the order with NEFCO, the New England Federation of Cooperatives, and then divided up the bulk goods into boxes for each member. The food was first rate: gallon jars of organic yogurt with the cream on top, vats of tofu in pound blocks bought directly from Boston’s Chinatown, and 10-pound blocks of sharp cheddar cheese from the Cabot diary cooperative in Vermont—for we purchased from producer cooperatives whenever possible.
WCF&F Co-op lived up to its name: we looked forward to meeting our fellow co-opers at the pick-ups as much as we did to taking the food home with us. One member, a recently widowed mother of three small children, baked bread every week and brought the loaves to the pick-up, fresh from the oven and often still warm. We shared recipes, announced events, found new housemates, and made lasting friendships, turning the weekly chore of food shopping into a pleasurable activity that fostered community.
I have been audited by the Internal Revenue Service only once in my life, and curiously, it was during the period of my life when I was making less money than I had ever made before or have since. When it came time for my appointment I dutifully hauled all my year’s receipts into the office and went over them with the auditor for more than an hour. What amazed him the most were how little we lived on. He asked suspiciously how our utility and food bills could be so low. I replied (smugly, I must admit) that we cooked and heated with wood which we split ourselves and that we bought our food wholesale from a pre-order food co-op. It was gratifying to see how impressed and chastened he was. In the end, he apologized to me for having audited me in error.
When we moved into the Boston area we first joined the Boston Food Co-op store and then a pre-order food co-op in Somerville. We became even more involved in co-ops when Andrew and his brother Dan started driving a truck for NEFCO and I was hired to edit and produce Food for Thought, the federation’s monthly newsletter. Editing FfT was itself a cooperative undertaking through which I came to rely on a team of friends and family to write, illustrate and lay out each issue, came to know more about all the member cooperatives in the New England region, both pre-orders and storefront, and learned the basic principles on which all cooperatives are founded.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s my Bangladeshi friend Hayat was a member of the Cambridge Food Cooperative in Central Square. As a young mother, Hayat made a large, batch of labor-intensive samosas every week, those mouth-watering deep-fried cones of wheat-flour pastry filled with spicy potatoes and peas, and sold them at the co-op. They were highly popular and went like hot cakes, though the other co-op members regularly confused them with the family whose hereditary dictatorship had just been overthrown by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
Over the years, food co-op membership has been eroded by large natural food chains like Whole Foods that replaced low prices with convenience and replaced community-building with mere shopping. Nevertheless, storefront co-ops continue to thrive across the country, and pre-order co-ops may be making a comeback along with organic farming and community-supported agriculture, as energy costs skyrocket yet again and a new generation of green activists seeks to take back control from the food industry.