Other Avenues Are Possible offers a vivid account of the dramatic rise and fall of the San Francisco People's Food System of the 1970s. Weaving new interviews, historical research, and the author’s personal story as a longstanding co-op member, the book captures the excitement of a growing radical social movement along with the struggles, heartbreaking defeats, and eventual resurgence of today's thriving network of Bay Area cooperatives, the greatest concentration of co-ops anywhere in the country. Integral to the early natural foods movement, with a radical vision of “Food for People, Not for Profit,” the People’s Food System challenged agribusiness and supermarkets, and quickly grew into a powerful local network with nationwide influence before flaming out, often in dramatic fashion. Other Avenues Are Possible documents how food co-ops sprouted from grassroots organizations with a growing political awareness of global environmental dilapidation and unequal distribution of healthy foods to proactively serve their local communities. The book explores both the surviving businesses and a new network of support organizations that is currently expanding.
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About the Author
Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff migrated from a small village in India to New York, eventually settling in San Francisco, where she felt at home with the foodcentric and co-op-friendly atmosphere. Shanta has been involved in the cooperative movement for more than three decades and works at Other Avenues, a worker-owned food co-op from the “new wave” co-op era of the 1970s. Shanta is a writer and contributes regularly to India Currents, an award-winning magazine. She also writes for various newsletters of the Bay Area’s co-op organizations.
Read an Excerpt
Other Avenues Are Possible
Legacy of the People's Food System of the San Francisco Bay Area
By Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff
PM PressCopyright © 2016 PM Press
All rights reserved.
Food Cooperatives in the United States
Early Europeans Who came to settle in the United States were surprised to observe Native Americans working together. According to some historical observations, "ownership in our sense did not exist."
The ability of Native American tribes to cooperatively produce and trade goods is well documented in the writing of Columbus who sailed to the Americas from Europe.
In addition to sharing lifesaving local food gifts, such as pumpkin, corn, beans, and turkey, as well as medicinal plants, with Europeans, Native Americans also taught the settlers valuable lessons about cooperative farming and trading. The constitutional ideas of Franklin and Jefferson were profoundly influenced by their observations of the egalitarian forms of governance among Native Americans.
Collaboration was instrumental to group survival in colonial America, and intentional cooperatives grew up among the European settlers. Shared labor was a common practice, from harvesting crops to quilting. Cooperative acts among the settlers saved many lives during disasters. Mutual Aid Societies were formed to share resources and to maintain the identities of groups from various countries. Spontaneous gatherings to prepare and consume food were common. Feasts like the one commemorated by the Thanksgiving holiday occurred regularly and served to strengthen the connections among colonists of varying backgrounds.
Co-ops and the Industrial Revolution
During the Industrial Revolution, there was a strong wave of organized cooperatives for a different reason: working people united to combat the increasing exploitative nature of industrial corporate power. Active resistance by workers against unfair labor practices was instrumental in stimulating the formation of the first organized labor cooperatives in the United States.
Optimistic thinkers had predicted that machines would free the working class. Instead, as new technologies made the workforce more productive, opportunistic businesses began to exploit their workers by increasing work hours at the lowest possible wages. Factory workers and farmers united in defiance. In the early 1800s, industrial workers reacted by marching, striking, and boycotting to demand better working conditions and reasonable wages. Small groups of striking workers typically joined together to address hardship and share their reduced food resources. The first formal modern food cooperatives were born of this socioeconomic upheaval.
In 1844, a group of weavers in Rochdale, England responded to harsh working conditions and low wages by opening a store where they purchased and shared food cooperatively. Later, they opened storefront outlets and agreed upon some rules, known as the Rochdale Cooperative Principles. These principles helped members and co-ops organize democratically to meet their shared needs. Inspired by the success of the Rochdale Cooperative, other cooperative ventures arose in England and the United States. The Rochdale weavers have been credited with initiating modern cooperatives in Europe.
In 1895, the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) was formed, uniting co-ops from many countries. The ICA defined a cooperative as "an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically controlled enterprise." In 2013, the ICA had 272 members in ninety-four countries.
In the United States, Europeans and other early American immigrants had started to organize cooperatives with formalized principles even before the Rochdale Cooperative was created. When money and other tangible resources were scarce, cooperative commerce was the only solution. In 1785, a group of American farmers organized to create the Philadelphia Society for Promotion of Agriculture. Influenced later by the Rochdale model, other types of co-ops formed, including the Boston Mechanics' and Laborers' Mutual Benefit Association, in 1845. Although cooperatives opened in other economic sectors, food-related businesses were among the first groups to formalize as cooperatives in the United States.
At the other end of the spectrum, by the mid-1800s growing numbers of agricultural corporations were changing food from a basic human need to a business commodity. The government's economic policies increasingly favored wealthy speculators who gambled on farm "futures," using food to balance international trade. Business interests demanded that farmers produce more food, regulating the industry so that individual farmers had less control over the means of production. When industrial development began to threaten farmers' autonomy, American farmers began to form cooperatives as a platform to reassert control over food production. They organized marketing co-ops to counter the adverse effects of overproduction and price controls that kept prices of farm products artificially low. Farmers, farmworkers, and consumers all came to understand that they would be more secure acting cooperatively than they could be acting separately. The Farmers' Alliance, founded in 1875 in the American South, and the American Society of Equity, formed in 1902, were both strong examples of early cooperatives that emerged in response to economic upheaval in the United States. These and other co-ops like them became the basis for a larger agricultural cooperative movement.
At the same time, a different wave of cooperatives was taking form among the many people who had migrated from rural areas to industrial towns looking for work. Having to rely upon urban markets for their food, these people had no control over quality or cost. To collectively address the problem, they created early forms of consumer co-ops, buying food in bulk from farmers and selling it to members at very low markups.
Cooperatives are decidedly anti-capitalist, and as such have never won ruling-class support. Legislators and churches often attacked the early U.S. coops as "anti-progressive" and socialist. Co-ops decentralized profit and passed savings on to consumers, which private businesses viewed as anti-business practices. In 1859, the Rochdale Cooperative responded by devising a system whereby goods were sold at a higher markup, or even at close to market prices, and the surplus was divided among the members. This practice allowed for a margin of profit that not only covered the cost of operation, it kept the peace with surrounding non-cooperative businesses. This became an acceptable market solution, and it is perhaps the most lasting contribution from the Rochdale Cooperative model.
As the labor movement grew increasingly strong in the United States, organized industrial workers sought labor rights, including a reasonable length to their workday. Momentum for this kind of organizing grew, and in 1886, thousands of workers united and marched to demand an eight-hour workday. This was the famous May Day strike in Chicago. Strikes such as this were met with governmental repression, which made workers more hostile and violent, culminating in the martyrdom of some important labor leaders. It was not until many years later, in 1938, that the Fair Labor Standards Act instituted an eight-hour day. Today May Day continues to be celebrated as International Workers' Day throughout the world.
Cooperatives Sweep America in the Early 1900s
The first large wave of American consumer co-ops was supported by active labor organizations, including unions, equity societies, and workers' leagues. By the early 1900s, union members had started a number of consumer clubs and co-op wholesalers. The wholesalers helped these clubs to open co-op storefront outlets. By 1920, more than 2,600 consumer co-op stores, most located in small towns, were grossing as much as $260 million a year.
In the late 1800s, a group that called itself the Grange created wholesale cooperatives using the Rochdale approach of selling goods to members at a low markup. The Grange cooperatives organized the first purchasing and marketing coops for farm equipment and machinery, and even organized cooperative banks. These banks allowed farmers to buy needed farm equipment and later helped them to form political alliances with urban workers. Grange cooperatives were successful at creating political, economic, and cultural connections among members. Even today, Grange cooperatives continue to work to support economic development in rural communities and to offer hubs of community and social activity in towns across America.
The rapid development of the cooperative movement in this era made the progressive thinkers of the day hopeful that an alternative system would take the place of ever-expanding market capitalism. This sentiment led many state governments to institute pro-co-op legislation, in many cases, because they did not want to pass up an opportunity to show support for something that was both popular and economically viable.
World War I and the Depression Era
World War I brought a contradictory economic dynamic into play in America. On the one hand, new jobs created more income for women and minorities. On the other hand, food prices skyrocketed, the result of the major export of food to feed both soldiers and starving allies abroad. Despite the growing economic need for cooperatives, with the rise of industrial coalitions of wholesalers, manufacturers, and bankers, the consumer co-op movement began to collapse. The postwar economy and the Great Depression, which began in 1929 and lasted through the 1930s, left many cooperatives bankrupt.
During the Depression the federal government's New Deal program proved helpful to rural Americans; the Rural Electrification Act of 1937 established the first large-scale electric utility cooperatives for agricultural operations. This profound change lit up rural life.
Thousands of farm cooperatives were established under the New Deal, with the goal of improving the quality of life of tenants and small farmers by resettling them on group farms located on government-owned land, where they could farm more efficiently using modern tools and techniques. However, many of these communities proved short-lived, as a result of undercapitalization and resistance from unsympathetic, conservative opponents. Historical accounts indicate that the government's intervention only resulted in limited improvement.
Some of the large farmer co-ops formed during the Depression did manage to survive, but only to be absorbed by the very industries that they had been formed to resist. They had united to fight the power of agribusiness, but once they became large bureaucratic organizations, they were indistinguishable from other corporations. Some of these farm co-ops, such as Sunkist Orange, still exist as financial entities, but their members have virtually no input into their governance, making them co-ops in name only.
Another new type of "self-help" cooperative arose during the Depression when large numbers of unemployed workers gathered to barter their labor for products. In California, for example, farmworkers exchanged their labor for a portion of the food they harvested. These self-help co-ops also received support under the New Deal, and there seemed to be potential for growth. However, they were undermined by other government programs, weakened by internal struggle, and ultimately fell apart.
Food Trends after World War II
World War II saw a decline in the popularity of co-ops, and under McCarthyism, co-ops were viewed as anti-American. The U.S. government, burdened by the war and its aftermath, overlooked the needs of rural populations. Industrial and chemical companies that had received support during the war now reinforced a growing agricultural/ chemical industry that was at odds with small farms. Large machines, new chemical fertilizers, and pesticides increased levels of food production over the short term, forcing farmers to engage in monoculture and amalgamating small farms into larger businesses. Monoculture called for expanding areas of arable land at any cost and ignored the knowledge, experience, and values of small farmers. Unable to support themselves, people in rural areas grew discouraged and migrated to the cities looking for work, a migration that further undermined existing rural co-ops.
Perhaps the most significant post war food trends were the growth of supermarkets across the country and the increasing preference for packaged groceries over the farm-fresh food that retail co-ops offered. New refrigerated trucks, walk-in coolers, and freezing and canning methods allowed food to be preserved and transported over great distances. At great expense, farm co-ops were forced to convert their operations to include processing and packaging.
By the 1950s, the connection between farmers and consumers had weakened tremendously. New mechanized farming methods alienated farmers from their own products. Large supermarkets disconnected consumers from farms and from food itself. Family farms began to be taken over by large-scale, vertically integrated industries (such as DuPont and Monsanto) that supplied a chain of companies producing farm products. The resulting revenue, which previously would have gone to farmers, now benefited corporations and contractors. This revenue was, in turn, used to purchase more farmland — today, these powerful companies continue to buy up farms. Their intense use of vast acreage drenched with harmful chemicals strips the soil of nutrients; all to maximize corporate profit in the guise of increased productivity.
Suburban consumerism in the 1950s, with its big cars and isolated nuclear families, offered little connection to the co-op movement. The ways that American people purchased and consumed food also changed radically. Given the longer shelf life, processed, packaged, and canned foods were in high demand. Corner grocery stores, bakeries, and butchers were replaced by one-stop grocery stores that offered an array of packaged foods. Poorly paid cashiers replaced the full-service clerks who had previously displayed products and wrapped purchases. People shopped once a week instead of every day. Supermarkets were able to purchase in bulk and advertise sales. Small businesses and co-ops simply could not compete. Only the large producer co-ops like Sunkist, with corporate-sized backing, survived, and they did so by marketing frozen and canned products aimed at the new consumer.
Despite the new competition from supermarkets and large mono-culture farms (or perhaps because of it), a small but significant group of people grew concerned and responded with efforts to maintain the connection between food production and its consumption. By the mid-1950s, there was some indication that farmers and consumers were, once again, eager to join forces and reclaim "real" food. This group would later form the basis for the modern food cooperative movement.
History of Food Cooperatives in the San Francisco Bay Area
The Bay Area has long been sensitive to food and food-related issues. In San Francisco, the first food co-op, the Cooperative Union Store, opened in 1867. Although it closed shortly thereafter, by the 1880s, many other new co-ops had opened in the Bay Area, including a co-op warehouse in Oakland called the Rochdale Wholesale Company.
In 1933, a wave of "self-help" cooperatives worked to save surplus produce that was rotting in California's fields due to Depression-era unemployment. Their efforts were supported by then-governor Upton Sinclair, who endorsed food co-ops in his 1933 program EPIC (End Poverty in California).
A quiet but effective enthusiasm for food co-ops continued to grow, and by the 1940s, there were many small consumer co-ops scattered across California, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area. Buoyed by progressive politics, coops in California continued to be active even during the difficult years of World War II. As the growing American food industry began to control the prices and the quality of food, activist consumers in the Bay Area mobilized in great numbers to form cooperatives and regain their relationship to farms and food, as well as engaging in other progressive political action.
The Consumer Cooperative of Berkeley
One of the most successful U.S. food co-ops, the Consumer Cooperative of Berkeley (CCB), started in the 1930s, when a food-buying club and a Finnish group called the Berkeley Cooperative Union joined together to open a small cooperative store to supply quality food at affordable prices. CCB members had close ties with the labor movement, and the store did well for twenty years. When supermarkets spread across the country in the 1950s, the CCB opened several supermarket-sized co-ops in California. These markets were stocked by their own co-op warehouses, which purchased produce directly from California farmers. This arrangement both empowered farmers and provided a steady supply of fresh produce to CCB consumers.
Excerpted from Other Avenues Are Possible by Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff. Copyright © 2016 PM Press. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
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Table of Contents
Part I Cooperation Builds Community 3
Chapter 1 Food Cooperatives in the United States 5
Chapter 2 The People's Food System 23
Part II The People's Food System Survivors 59
Chapter 3 Veritable Vegetable 61
Chapter 4 Rainbow Grocery Cooperative 71
Chapter 5 Other Avenues Food Store Cooperative 83
Part III Food Sharing Builds Community 101
Chapter 6 My Journey with Bay Area Food Co-ops and Other Avenues 103
Part IV The Future Is Now 121
Chapter 7 Sustaining Food Co-ops 125
Chapter 8 Keeping the Vision 147
Suggested Literature and Other Sources for Further Study 161
Lists of Co-ops, Markets, and Organizations 165