Josna Rege

Posts Tagged ‘food cooperatives’

225. Audit Alert!

In 1970s, 1990s, Britain, Family, Food, Inter/Transnational, Media, Music, Stories, United States on August 28, 2013 at 4:28 pm

Working on taxes is guaranteed to drive one to distraction. As I struggle vainly to focus on the figures swimming before my eyes, my thoughts stray instead into the green groves of memory, a Big Rock Candy Mountain where the refunds grow on bushes and auditors have rubber teeth (see the real lyrics here).

imagesOne Hallowe’en during the 1990’s when Nikhil was about fourteen, almost too old to go out trick-or-treating, he decided to dress up as an Internal Revenue Service auditor. At the local Salvation Army thrift store he found a grey Brooks Brothers suit that was just a little too big, making him look forbiddingly gaunt and cavernous, accessorized it with black shoes and a nondescript tie, and tucked a briefcase under his arm. Finally, lest people should fail to identify him, he made a badge for his breast pocket. I’m not sure how children reacted, though I suspect that they might have mistaken him for an adult or older brother accompanying younger trick-or-treaters; but he certainly got a response from the parents! Shuddering noticeably, they backed away from the open door as if the bogeyman had just loomed into their field of vision. Then they hurried forward a little too eagerly and, as if to placate, urged him to take extra handfuls of candy. He came home that night with quite a haul. (Incidentally, he grew into the suit and used for years afterward, wearing it to job interviews, bar mitzvahs, and all manner of functions that required formal attire.)



Perhaps the idea for that costume occurred to Nikhil because back in my 20s, around 1977, I had actually been subjected to an IRS audit and survived to tell the tale. I must have done something to raise a red flag, and it certainly wasn’t making outrageous amounts of money. I had worked for a nearly a year at my first fulltime job after college, and must have claimed some deductions that the federal government deemed questionable. At the time I was living in the wealthy town of Concord, so perhaps they suspected that I was in fact making a lot more money than I had claimed on my tax return. Either that or, early in my taxpaying career, they just wanted to teach me a lesson I wouldn’t soon forget. A forbidding-looking letter arrived in the mail with a time and place for my audit, advising me to bring all my receipts and other documentation of my income and expenses for the previous year. To say that my receipts were all stuffed into a shoebox would be putting too positive a spin on the condition of my accounts, so I went into a whirlwind of activity, pulling together my records of income and paid bills, even if they had been paid in cash and scrawled on scraps of paper, as many of them were.

It was a slight, serious young man who greeted me tentatively as I made an entry with an obvious attitude. How dare the IRS audit me, an honest and upstanding citizen! (Well, honest, at any rate; never mind that I wasn’t a citizen, and wasn’t going to be one for another 30 years or more.) He ushered me into a little booth and invited me to lay out my paperwork for his review. Did I ever! I must have felt it was my personal mission to subject this federal agent, this representative of the Man, to my philosophy of life, demonstrating to him the many virtues of sustainable living, home gardening, and food cooperative membership. I don’t think the poor fellow managed to get more than a few words in edgewise, while I delivered my presentation as if I were standing at a podium before a crowd of thousands.

I do remember his asking me a couple of timid questions. One of them was, how could we have eaten enough to survive on just $25 a week? Easy, I said triumphantly: All our vegetables were home-grown in the summer and canned for the winter; and for all the food we couldn’t grow ourselves, West Concord Food and Friendship Cooperative, our pre-order food co-op, cut out the middleman and—I felt the need to score a point—the profit as well. The other question was how our electricity bills could be so incredibly low. Easy, I boasted again: energy conservation, supplemented with wood and solar power.  Andrew had made his own woodburning stove out of a 55-gallon drum and the construction was so tight that there were still embers glowing in it when we woke in the mornings, making it just a matter of minutes before it was roaring merrily and heating the whole superbly-insulated cabin. Then too, Andrew had built a solar greenhouse on one side of the house, buffering it from the winter winds and additionally allowing us to grow greens all year round. Did he need anything more from me—plans for the greenhouse, perhaps, the brilliant design of the stove, a membership brochure for the food co-op?

Looking back, I feel rather sorry for the young auditor. This might have been his first job after college as well. Perhaps he was struggling to support a family or climb out from under a mountain of debt. It was not long before he pronounced himself satisfied and me free to go. As he helped me gather up my pile of papers and hastened to show me out, he actually apologized on behalf of his agency for having audited me. But when I asked if this meant that I was safe from being audited again in the future, he said he was afraid not. If my return raised similar alerts in the future, well then, I could expect to receive an audit notice again. But as long as I continued to keep such good records, he added, I had nothing to fear.

In the 1990s one of my favorite programs on PBS featured another awkward young income tax auditor, and in the improbable role of male romantic  lead. It was the British series, The Darling Buds of May, based on the 1958 H. E. Bates novel of the same name, with his counterpart played by a very young and stunningly beautiful Catherine Zeta-Jones as the farmer’s eldest daughter Mariette. The timid Cedric (aka Charley) had been sent by the Department to audit the flamboyant “farmer” Pop Larkin, who was living suspiciously high on the hog. Needless to say, the Larkin family was more than a match for poor Charley—perhaps not so poor, after all (say no more, wink wink).

Of course, The Darling Buds of May was nothing but the stuff of dreams, a Big Rock Candy Mountain for the nostalgic Nineties. In the real world, one can’t just feast, seduce, or marry the auditor. But wait—isn’t that exactly how it’s done?

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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.


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, and 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 forged 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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