by Marion Nestle
Oct 2 2020

Weekend reading: Grocery Activism

Craig B. Upright.  Grocery Activism: The Radical History of Food Cooperatives in Minnesota.  University of Minnesota Press, 2020.

Grocery Activism: The Radical History of Food Cooperatives in Minnesota:  Upright, Craig B.: 9781517900731: Books

I was interested to read this book because I was a member of the Berkeley Co-op grocery store on Shattuck Avenue back in the day and am a member of the Ithaca Co-op now.  Co-ops are member-owned.

Upright based this book on his doctoral thesis about the history of the co-op movement in Minnesota, which aimed to promote production and sales of organic foods.

It is important to study these stores and their stories because it is difficult to understand what “organic” means today without knowing what it could have been, without exploring how this new product, sold in these unconventional settings, attracted the passions of those who wanted to make their world a better place (p. 5).

The difficulty, as Upright puts it, was in trying to run a business and a social movement in one space.

A co-op will cease to exist if it continually operates at a loss.  But co-ops are generally not oriented toward generating a profit.  In fact, state laws often dictate that surplus revenues must be reinvested in the organization or returned to its members…Remaining true to their social values helps maintain the patronage and support of the members who consciously choose to participate, thus keeping the business viable (p. 79).

Upright explains the social-movement origins:

Between 1971 and 1975, co-ops promoted ideologies of opposition to larger capitalistic structures.  Particularly in the Twin Cities, new-wave co-ops opened primarily in areas characterized by institutions of higher learning and strong leftist political leanings.  They formed as art of a larger rejection of mainstream economic policies, attempting to place more power in the hands of lower-income consumers; the array of foods they sold reflected a liberal cultural and political agenda, balanced by the need to sell enough product of any kind to stay in business (p. 125).

This movement was important because in many ways, it succeeded.

The goal so many worked toward…has been achieved; organic food has now achieved mainstream acceptance.  Even so, cooperatives thrive…The social change many championed when this movement began more than forty years ago—the hope that they could challenge the dominance of prevailing agricultural paradigms—has been realized without leading to the irrelevance of co-ops (p. 210).