Food for Change: A Story of Food Coops in America

Last night, at the UUCC Church in Park Forest, there was a screening of the documentary Foor for Change:  The Story of Cooperation in America.   This blog post is about the movie and also about local reaction to the movie from people who are members of the local South Suburban Food Coop.

1.   The History of Coops

A lot of the movie was taken up by the history of food coops in America, which was affected by various movements of economic and social upheaval.

  • 1930s–In the shadow of the Great Depression, food coops were born, which led to growth of coop banks, and even coop energy production.
  • 1940s–With the ramping up for war production and the rationing of food, growth in coops was superseded by the growth of the war economy.
  • 1950s–Growth in coops resumed after World War II, but was stymied by political attacks on coops as being associated with communism.
  • 1960s–Coops grew again, this time not born out of a time of economic upheaval, as much as social upheaval.   The need for coops was more ideological than economic in white suburban areas, but the economic needs of  rural and inner-city areas, the areas bypassed by the growth of the middle class in the 1960s, started economically driven coops in those areas.
  • 1970s–The nomination of the consummate corporatist Earl Butz as Secretary of Agriculture in Nixon’s cabinet through the support of the U.S. Government behind agribusiness, thus accelerating the decline of the individual family farm.
  • 1980s–The Reagan Revolution, promoting an economic divide-and-conquer strategy in the disguise of “individual freedom”, reduced the demand for cooperatives.
  • 1990s–The so-called Free Trade agreements like NAFTA championed by the Clinton administration accelerated the decline of family farms in Mexico, leading an unprecedented wave of illegal immigration into the United States.    The decline of family farms in the U.S. continued as well.
  • 2000s–Corporations involved in producing and controlling food distribution in the U.S. flocked to China where the environmental and food safety regulatory system was practically non-existent.
  • 2010s–The collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008 is creating conditions comparable to the Great Depression in many areas of America, as the middle class once again teeters on the brink of extinction.    Coops start filling the economic vacuum once again.

One of the first comments after the movie by the audience was how the time was closest to the 1930s than we’ve ever been, and in the absence of any leadership in the White House comparable to that of FDR in the New Deal, the American people have gone from “the ownership society” to the “you’re-on-your-own-ership society”.    Food coops are thriving as more Americans focus on local food consumption and production and turning food into an engine of wealth creation rather than wealth extraction.

2.  Two Ends of the Hourglass–How Coops Work

If you look at the hourglass above, imagine the top half being the “2 million farms” that supply the food and the bottom half being the “300 million Americans” who consume the food.    The purpose of supermarket chains is to be right in the middle, and to create a stranglehold on the supply of food so that they can extract as much money from both ends.    The coop usually starts on the bottom as a group of food consumers get together and organize a “buyer’s club” which concentrates their economic power.    Since the profits of the coop then get funneled back the owners of the coop, i.e., its members, there is a slow but steady economic engine of change.

The second stage of coop growth is, having achieved a certain modest but measurable about of buying power, they then get the food from local growers, like farmers or even community gardens, who can thrive because they are being given a fair and stable price on which they can base their business.    Farmers that supply to supermarket chains can have their price cut at any moment, forcing them to lose money and eventually go out of business.     There is literally no profit to made by coops in doing this, and in fact, it is against their interest to do so, so they on the contrary have an interest in keeping the supply steady and secure.

The third stage of coop growth is in the connection between the two halves of the hourglass, that is, the distribution of food from the farmers to the coops.    In Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, which has the highest concentration of coops per capita (somewhere in the neighborhood of 5% of food stores, if I remember correctly), several coops are cooperating to run warehouses and other distribution centers.

The fourth stage of coop growth is yet to happen, and that is the stage achieved in the 1930s by the involvement of coops in the financing of the entire system.   It remains to be seen whether that will be recreated in the wake of the second Great Depression, called the Great Recession in the mainstream media.

3.  Local Reaction

Many members of the local food coop, the South Suburban Food Coop, stayed after the movie and gave their impressions.    We were treated by a woman in her 70s named Dorothy who had been one of the founders of the coop back in the 1970s, and who just now retiring from the board.   She said it started as a buyer’s club, and has slowly built itself through word of mouth to the point where recently, it is now open to the public (i.e., non-members).    One of the other board members mentioned some new initiatives, many of which were echoed in the portrayal of modern day coops in the film, such as

  • Community Gardens–community-sponsored gardens that grow food for the coops and the community in general
  • Education Initiatives–trips to the coop by groups of young people like Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts troops, to educate them on the importance of nutrition
  • Sponsoring of Local farmers–the economic buying power of groups in the suburbs is having a salutary effect on growers in the surrounding rural communities.

I can testify to this last point.   It wasn’t at the coop, but at a local farmers market where I encountered, at a booth sponsored by a local baking company, a series of high-quality but unusual jams and jellies with combinations like raspberry and jalipeno, and I asked if they produced these as well.   They said no, they were produced by Amish communities in Illinois and Indiana who sold to the bakers, who then sold them on to the local farmers markets and food cooperatives like South Suburban Food Coop.    So my purchase from a local baker had an effect of keeping an Amish farmer in business who lived in another state!   It was the first time I felt the power of personal connection in the decision to buy locally from a farmers market.

4.  Conclusion

The first call to action I am going to do this weekend is to visit the South Suburban Food Coop and become a member.  Don’t ask me why I’m doing it.   My answer to you would be, “if you saw this film and saw how exciting it is to be a part of such a movement, why wouldn’t you want to do it?”


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