Nearly 10,000 U.S. food cooperatives were formed between 1969-1979. The snowballing was linked to the cultural, political, and socioeconomic climate at the time, one that saw many food co-ops emerge as experimental centers for non-hierarchical management, radical participatory democracy, and alternative food-industry practices. It’s hard to imagine where we would be today without all this. Many no-brainers of the modern food business—trendy stuff like fair trade, organic agriculture, transparent sourcing, and gmo labeling—are the offspring of this 70s-era blend of food, people, and politics. Co-op historians call this period the new wave.
The wave before the new wave was called—shockingly—the old wave. Co-ops like the one I work for were at the heart of the old wave, formed during the 1930s to provide members with staple products otherwise hard to come by. The heated politicking and radical rethinking of popular convention was still decades away. And though one might argue the new wave was a mutinous answer to earlier generations, in my view it was simply in line with social evolution, a trend that coincided with a lot of other things that were going on in late 20th century America.
In her 2004 paper, “That’s Capitalism, Not a Co-op,” history Professor Maria McGrath, PhD, examined two issues that flummoxed many food cooperatives of the period—the implementation of governance/management and the political environment surrounding food. (Arguably these two issues are still huge challenges today, but that’s for another blog post.) “Despite these struggles,” she wrote, “from the 1970s forward U.S. food co-ops have remained a flexible forum within which the progressive middle-class can practice conscientious consumption, alternative business, and purposeful communalism.” (Emphasis mine.)
One reason for my own willingness to tackle this topic, which I generally have no expertise in whatsoever, is a matter of simple diction. I’m no historian or economist, but I am a writer, a job so behind the scenes that many people don’t even know I work here, which fits my introverted nature just fine. I write a little bit of everything for the Co-op: reports, letters, emails, web pages, blog posts like this one. In all that sundry variety, the one common link is words, and my life-long love of them.
The words “purposeful communalism” are what sent me down this rabbit hole of philosophy, politics, history, sociology, and economics. I’ve been associated with co-ops for 20 years, and in my experience purposeful communalism has been the glue that’s held co-ops together. It’s been particularly evident during the past several months of the pandemic.
Take the White River Junction store, as one random example. This is my family’s home store, if for no other reason than simple geography. The store sits beside an old, imposing brick elementary school along a busy intersection just west of the Connecticut river in Vermont, not more than a mile or so from our house. We stop in nearly every day for a few things, sometimes more than once per day. Employees at the store have watched my children grow up.
Then came COVID-19 this past spring. Overnight we wore masks in the store, gave each other air high fives, and canceled our in-person meetings. (Another thing that’s well-suited to my introverted nature.) From the beginning, all of our locations were viewed as vital community resources providing key services during a national emergency, and employees were viewed as essential workers. Many of my neighbors have expressed how comforting it has been to visit the White River Junction Co-op throughout this period, where a supportive, neighborly, communal spirit clearly exists. I know this dynamic exists in our other locations too, each of which has its own particular flavor and culture.
The upshot is that the pandemic has taught me a lot of things, and one of them is that we are lucky to have cooperatives. Before this dystopian film of a year, I was pretty familiar with cooperative history: the early pioneers in the U.K., the old wave, the new wave, and onward. But it wasn’t until the past six months that all this came together in my mind. As I see it, what’s important about the various periods of cooperative history is not the blurry lines that separate one wave from another, but the ebb and flow that links all of it together. The key is to nurture and further the communalism each generation has prioritized in order to carry us through uncertain times. If not, to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, we might one day sit from a high hill and look back at where we’ve been, seeing where the wave finally broke, and then rolled back.
 Daniel Zwerdling, “The Uncertain Revival of Food Cooperatives,” Co-ops, Communes, and Collectives: Experiments in Social Change in the 1960s and 1970s, ed. John Case and Rosemary C. R. Taylor (New York, 1979).
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