February 15, 2015

Committed to Food Co-Op Ideals?

Unions and food Co-ops, are they the way of the future? A look at Co-ops 50 years later.

The very idea of a food cooperative (co-op) is not new; it is based on the age old principle of the community working together and sharing the rewards for the betterment of all. It's an idea popularized in the 1960s embracing the ideals of a democratic, self-run association of individuals with an orientation to serve the community, in a sustainable and eco-friendly manner, to name a few of the goals which many food co-ops express.

This has however, sometimes, engendered the politicalization of food, or food politics. Many wish to participate in food cooperatives with the intention that they may also express their political will and social bonefides in addition to filling their grocery cart. It is also as a community activity, one which naturally fulfills a social need for some to congregate, and to support others with various needs.
In the early years many food co-ops were faith-inspired initiatives whose bounty of good will flowed to the communities that they served. Often churches and other civic organizations sponsored or fostered the local co-op. They were focused on the social and community aspects of food distribution, seeking to eliminate poverty and inequities of access to wholesome food products.
Some simply spurned what they viewed as a defunct capitalist system; co-ops were a way around this. The member-supported and directed co-op became a boon to those who wished for lives more free from the interference of commerce, embracing ideals of sharing, togetherness and ecology for example.

However it seems in many areas of the country today food co-ops are perhaps suffering from their own success. Once one of the few ways to obtain organic, fair-trade or local produce at fair prices in urban areas, many co-ops now find themselves threatened by competition from bigger, national chains who have recognized the desire for wholesome organic foods for the masses. For example Kroger, the nation's largest dedicated food retailer, now routinely offers similar or same organic and fair-trade items in its stores at prices more favorable than the local co-op can match. Other stores and traditional retailers have jumped on board with similar offerings. If the local food co-op is to survive, in many areas, they have been forced into a more traditional, commercial role.

The Bloomington, Indiana magazine, The Ryder has recently taken an extensive look into the local co-op there and some are now finding it problematic. There is the intense scrutiny of the organization as a business. Many feel corporatization is necessary to  survival in today's world. Some say that co-ops which today are not run like a traditional business, aren't likely to survive to foster any revolutions or see the light of any social justice initiatives.
And there's more; the necessity of the corporate structure has come to many co-ops today leaving those associated with them feeling that there is a two-tiered system of owner-operators, and employees on the second tier who have few capital resources but labor day after day in the co-op stores themselves.
These persons feeling at the second tier, feeling dis-respected, unappreciated and often taken advantage of; a number have invited and even agitated for unionization of their co-op. Yet some founding, long-time members point out that the co-op model was not imagined to be a worker's collective; rather its focus was as a member owned entity.
This member owned ideal is at the heart of many collectives; indeed a food co-op conceived as such would be included here, but what's in it for those who don't join or those who work diligently but don't have the resources to buy into the co-op as a business or corporate entity?

For many the answer has come in the form of unionization of the local co-op, and organizers for the United Food and Candy Workers Union (UFCW) see a definite role for themselves here. For Bloomington, Indiana's Bloomingfoods, UFCW local 700 has become the answer. Now the workers may vote, be represented, strike and negotiate for better pay, training and working conditions.

If the local food co-op is to survive many are now seeing that it must be more than a local icon, a  branded destination, it must take its social initiatives seriously, making its mission a journey of the spirit and not simply the congregating point for the well-heeled consumer on Saturday mornings.

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