Josna Rege

114. Food for People, Not for Profit

In 1970s, 1980s, Food, Politics, Stories, United States, Work on June 28, 2011 at 11:25 pm

artwork by Jim Turner

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.

from brownstoner.com

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.

from okhorizon.com

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.

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  1. I didn’t realized you’d edited Food for Thought, although it doesn’t surprise me now. I love your story about being audited. Very funny! Who knows, maybe the IRS guy now belongs to a CISA farm. Cooking for 40 is pretty impressive, too. I guess you were prepared for it by your family’s lifelong affair with bountiful entertaining.

    My household belonged to the co-op in Allston-Brighton. There were 9 of us, so we rotated chores. You only had to grocery shop and do your time every 9 weeks, but when you did it, it was a big job!

    Nobody ever dreamed of Monsanto, right?

    • It’s nice to think of us living parallel lives way back then, perhaps even passing each other in the Boston Food Co-op. And you know Food for Thought!
      Even if most of us weren’t aware of it, Monsanto was already in the herbicide and pesticide business even then. It was making Agent Orange in the 1960s, and from this article by my friend Brian Tokar, an expert on Monsanto, it was making Round-up as long ago as the 1980s, perhaps even earlier.

  2. I am sure you are right, Jojo, the whole idea of food co-ops has come full circle and now we are probably going to once again develop a system like it that will help us all survive what ever is coming. Eating organic and freshly prepared meals are starting to become not only fashionable, but necessary if we are going to maintain good health.
    As a child growing up in India I could not imagine anything else and I remember my mother sending to Singapore for a very special cake mix in a box! What a thrill!
    Even around here I notice that people go nuts over home grown tomatoes and lemons off the tree in the back yard. I see my neighbors growing more and more vegetables each
    year and the stores like Henry’s and Jimbo’s which sell organic food are very popular.
    We have a farmer’s market now down the main street of Escondido every Tuesday evening

    • Yes, Marianne, we made just about everything from scratch. That habit lasted a long time after coming to this country, and food co-ops helped, since that movement was trying to get away from processed foods. It’s only more recently, as life has become so hectic, that Trader Joe’s natural and organic fast foods have proved to be so seductive, so that I buy organic canned chickpeas, for example, rather than soaking the chickpeas overnight and then boiling them for hours.

  3. omg – I and my roommate were members of the Allston-Brighton Food Coop in 1979-1980, and I remember that one of my jobs at the time was to help Dan, one of the truckers for NEFCO! I loved being a part of that small, but rather nice coop. Poor Dan, though – my late hours as a grad student caused me to be in a fog when I had to leave at 4:30 AM in the morning to be there at six to help him! Sorry about that, Dan!

    • That’s amazing, Iva! I will tell Dan–I’m sure he’ll be tickled. I’ll let you know what he says. Dan’s brother Andrew (now my husband) took over that run for a while when Dan hurt his knee, and I remember those early, pre-dawn starts. I didn’t have the excuse of being a work-befogged grad student—I was just slow in the mornings.

    • Hi Iva! I was in as much of a fog as you so no worries. I had to drive into Cambridge from Concord when it was still dark, and i was a naturally late owl myself. To keep awake I used to do throat singing a la tuvan style — never got the two notes at a time thing or multiple overtones.

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