Food, Coops, Capitalism
Last week, I travelled to Portland, Oregon to give a keynote presentation to the Consumer Coop Management Association—CCMA. My first experience with cooperatives had been in 1983 when I worked as a manager for the Stockton Farmers’ Market Coop. Long before the rise of the food movement, we used to sell fresh produce to the Berkeley Coop’s supermarkets. This allowed a small group of struggling farmers to sell a lot of good food to a big group of affluent consumers. But that was long ago. I needed to study up to face 500 experts in coop management.
When I did background research, I was struck by the obvious: Capitalism and food coops emerged together.
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The first known food cooperative, the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, was formed in 1844 by a small group of craftspeople who had been de-skilled by England’s great textile factories in the thick of the Industrial Revolution. Of course, cooperative forms of food sharing dates to the dawn of our species. But the consumer cooperative as we know it today was a desperate response by starving workers laboring in the ‘Satanic Mills’ where they earned “enough for their daily crust and not a penny more.”
These workers originally came from rural communities and grew their own food. But large landowners enclosed the village Commons, fencing off communally-managed fields to raise sheep and produce wool for the emerging textile industry. Country people resisted these land grabs for over a hundred years, but the power of the industrialists steadily impoverished them, driving them to the cities where men, women and children were literally worked to death. This starving “reserve army of labor” provided early industrial capitalism with the cheap labor subsidy essential for making Great Britain a global industrial power.
Early cooperatives were not only a way for workers to survive, they were hubs that rebuilt the social relationships destroyed by the Industrial Revolution—radical “public spheres” where people helped each other, learned to read and write, and where ideas like universal suffrage, an end to slavery, and labor rights were discussed—and acted upon.
Just before the end of the U.S. Civil War, formerly enslaved Africans were given a huge swath of unused land on the Georgia-Carolina coast by General William Tecumseth Sherman (40 acres and a mule). A year later, with the North victorious, President Andrew Johnson rescinded the order, leaving them landless. After Reconstruction, southern states introduced segregationist Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise and incarcerate African-Americans, forcing many into chain gangs. But African-Americans pulled together. They organized not just food coops, but production, marketing and credit coops. By 1910 they had purchased over 15 million acres of land—without a penny from the government and in the face of brutally violent discrimination. During the Great Migration (1916-1970), six million African Americans moved to northern states, fleeing racial terror and severe economic oppression. Food coops like the Wedge Community Foods Cooperative of Minnesota provided essential food security for Black communities. African-American coop federations, like the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, continue to this day. At its core, the Black cooperative experience has not just been about survival, but about independence, dignity, and economic sovereignty:
There exists today a chance for [Blacks] to organize a cooperative State within their own group. By letting Negro farmers feed Negro artisans, and Negro technicians guide [Black] home industries and [Black] thinkers plan this integration of cooperation, while [Black] artists dramatize and beautify the struggle, economic independence can be achieved. To doubt that this is possible is to doubt the essential humanity and the quality of brains of [Black People]. – W.E.B. DuBois, 1935
When 13 million people lost their jobs during The Great Depression, there was an increase in cooperative activity. While coops saw a 17% rise in employment, 25% of the nation was unemployed. The nation was falling apart. In the three years following the 1929 stock market crash, the U.S. saw over 10,000 bank failures and 10,000 labor strikes. The government of Franklin Delano Roosevelt teetered on the brink. As the Depression worsened, unions and socialist parties grew in strength. Coops were seen as the “middle way” (between socialism and fascism) that could help strengthen Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms.
In the 1970s the food coops experienced another renaissance. Consumers began rejecting the unhealthy industrialized food being sold in the vast supermarket networks that had sprung up after the Second World War. These “Second Wave” coops, largely white and “counter-cultural,” were instrumental in ushering in organic food across the country.
Today, over 300 food cooperatives in the U.S. control about one half of one percent (.05%) of the retail market share. A diverse reflection of their seven-decade history, these coops are big, small, consumer or worker-owned, local, statewide, and national in scope. There are coops in poor as well as affluent neighborhoods. Many cater to primarily white, middle class communities, but some are ethnically diverse, or anchored in communities of color. There are radical cooperatives forging alternatives to capitalism, progressive coops that support social causes, and reformist cooperatives that just want to get a better deal for their members.
What unites them? Aside from the Rochdale cooperative principles, all coops come from a long history of communities and counter-movements that stood up to the injustices of capitalism. Today, they face a food system in which 80% of our food is sold by a handful of retail monopolies and one in seven people in the U.S. are going hungry—largely women, children and people of color.
Coops are also united—and divided—in their diversity. Two hundred years of racism, sexism and classism under a series of capitalist food regimes has not left the movement unscathed. Like the rest of the food movement, if the coop movement is to become a powerful force for food system transformation, they will also need to reach out to the nation’s 2.3 million farmers, 800,000 farmworkers, 46,000 workers in processing plants, and the over 3 million workers in retail grocery who together make up over 12% of the national workforce.
The good news—as I discovered when speaking with coop managers at the CCMA conference—is that this conscious convergence is already underway. Many coops have become “radical public spheres” that prioritize social and economic democracy, equity and radical social inclusion.
The food movement is searching for a catalyst to help bring us all together into a powerful countermovement, capable of transforming not just our food system, but the capitalist system in which it is embedded. As in the past, today’s coops are being called upon to rise to the challenge.