Occupied Tucson Citizen

Has the conspiracy gone out of the Food Co-Op?

BY GREG EVANS, Occupied Tucson Citizen

It is hard to believe, after its recent renovation, that not too long ago the Food Conspiracy Food Co-Op on 4th Avenue was a hippy kind of place. A place where vegetarians, vegans, food activists and the like went and felt at home. Where the food products which might contain GMOs were marked with a question mark, where the dairy product manufacturers were ranked (one cow for worst, five cows for the best) for their treatment of the livestock, where the country of origin for the bulk bin items were indicated on the bins themselves, and where a certain number of the people working in it were volunteers. It also had the improvised quality of a place that was making do with its limited space. Products were placed where they were as much by tradition and immediate practicality as they were by any kind of overarching ergonomic, Taylorized concept of the most efficient use of its space.

Now, however, the Food Co-Op doesn’t seem much more welcoming of the ethnic hippy, alternative-type or food activist than large corporate chains such as Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. Certainly the last vestiges of “disorder” have been removed: the community bulletin board is no longer the sprawling affair that it once was, the single rack allowed for publications features a similar selection of magazines as to what you would find at Whole Foods, and no longer features such radical publications as the Earth First! Journal (Adbusters Magazine being the only exception to this) or, quite significantly, any room for community-oriented publications such as the Occupied Tucson Citizen. Even that hallmark of differentiation between alternative and mainstream supermarkets—a nickel refund if you bring in your own bag—is now gone.

But it is also true that the “Food Conspiracy” Food Co-Op is now more consumer-friendly, more streamlined of an operation and, no doubt, more profitable. Much of the expansion that resulted from the recent renovation went toward putting in an eat-in deli section (in which we weird, eccentric vegetarians are assured that there will “always be a vegetarian option”), and much of the rest of the expansion of the retail space was dedicated toward increasing aisle size and product offerings for the burgeoning off-campus student population living around 4th Avenue.

And, no doubt, there are other advantages as well. But before my misgivings are simply dismissed as those of a disgruntled purist, please keep the following in mind: it isn’t a question of the Food Co-Op being a bad place now (it isn’t), or a place that should somehow be boycotted (it shouldn’t, and further they deserve credit for not moving to a mall, which they have considered doing in the past). Nor, however, is it a question of it being a failing (as some might argue) of yours truly, a “co-owner” of the Food Co-Op who doesn’t go to meetings and so hasn’t voiced his objections to what has been happening — the fact is, I’ve been too busy going to other meetings to add this one into the mix.

It is rather a question of the ever-growing permeation of corporate culture and norms into every aspect of our lives, so that every consumer convenience, every increase in efficiency, every additional streamlining and standardization of the world around us (we could also say here sterilization and homogenization) is to be accepted because that, increasingly, is what we want and expect. Because Consumer Woman and Consumer Man, even of the alternative, counter-cultural variety, want to do their shopping (and this is primarily what they do, they shop) quickly, comfortably and easily, even if it means doing away with the actual counter-culture and replacing it with the affect of one.

How this corporatized norm is permeating other aspects of even the counter-cultural remnants here in Tucson will be a topic of further articles. So stay tuned… and beware of any formerly alternative but now corporatizing entities you might in the meantime encounter.

8 Comments

  1. Robert Oser
    February 24, 2013

    Clearly written by a person with no clue. The Food Conspiracy is doing more than ever to educate people on what is being done to their food supply, to supply healthy and nutritious foods at reasonable prices, supporting local agriculture, and networking with local small businesses and social programs to reach students, the elderly, poor and disenfranchised. Perhaps you should find out the facts before you spout disinformation and innuendo? The Food Conspiracy is far from a corporate business. It is a true local community market. Perhaps if you did come to meetings or became involved, you would see a different picture. If you think it’s a problem, become part of the soluition.

  2. GSE
    February 25, 2013

    As the author of the article, there isn’t much that I can say to Robert Oser’s response, as I don’t think he really read my article and pretty much chose to respond to a measured criticism of an important local institution with vitriol (stating that I’m a “person with no clue” who “spout[s] disinformation and innuendo,” etc.). The points made by Jeffrey Holsen on the Occupy Tucson Facebook page’s posting of the article are I think quite pertinent and point to some of the issues of cooperatives trying to survive in an aggressive market economy. While he too invites me to come to the board meetings as a part of the solution (when I said in the article that I can’t do that, I’m already going to more meetings with other relevant community institutions than I have the time to go to, which is one of the ways that paid, mangerial staff can wear down activist-members), he also raises the very important issue of the Food Co-Op having to maintain its competiveness, especially with a Whole Foods coming to Speedway and Park. In this regard, I will quote Keith Harrington in a recent article in Truthout on this issue, “while cooperatives have proven just as competitive as capitalist firms in a capitalist context, when capitalist profits and growth assume top priority, worker-owned firms may be compelled to act more like capitalist firms and subordinate core objectives such as worker empowerment and well-being, community development and environmental sustainability. Indeed, as cooperatives grow, even the percentage of actual worker owners in their ranks has been known to decline.” http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/13918-the-new-cuba-a-beachhead-for-economic-democracy-we-should-support

  3. Cassandra
    February 26, 2013

    What’s even more significant is that Mr Oser copped an authoritarian, aggressive tone in his response, validating the authors concerns.

  4. Jeffrey Gerard Holsen
    February 28, 2013

    The observations you make bear noting but do not recognize major differences under the skin between the Co-op and it’s competition. Perhaps the culture there has shifted to reflect that of the members who do step up and serve on the board and committees. You may join us on the ‘owner linkage’ or other committees or encourage others to do so. Economically speaking, the co-op is more ‘pure’ in some significant ways than back in the hippie day. Only a few years ago, unincorporated from under pro-corporate co-op hostile AZ law and rechartered under MN law to be a real co-op in it’s legal business charter. FC is also now more empowered in it’s actual implementation of assistance for progressive groups and organizations around Tucson involved in community, food, and sustainability. One intention of the renovation change is to actually create a greater space for the membership and the community. This is still a work in progress. While the current GM at FC may be moderate and not see the need for a larger movement, the membership can play a role in rectifying that from the grass roots up. I agree that the progressive membership needs to make it’s voice heard. However, mostly people want to bemoan and voice their discontents and allow others to do the work.

    This article touches on sentiments which are complex and need to be examined with a discriminating mind. I am aware of the rigidifying of our culture: the insinuation of fear and lock step thinking which can seem overwhelming and which we wish to never to see reflected at OUR Co-op. We want not just the trappings of integrity and authenticity but the essence. We need to discern and differentiate our projected fears as well as be vigilant to assure that the glare of those fears does not cause us to see amiss. The fact is there has been no coup at the Co-op. The co-op is a direct result of the energy which flows into it. If we members want to see the co-op extend it’s scope of mission into the sphere of the culture at large beyond the (unprecedented for it) work it is doing helping real farmers grow – and helping real people learn more about internal and external sustainability of our food, we will have to dance that spiral into being through our sustained presence and involvement. I fully support this. However, I am also a big fan of the Co-op endorsing actions and solutions and leaving individual people to connect political dots, rather than having anyone conclude that they are not welcome because they are not vegan/green/radical/freak/anarchist/disestablishmentarian/dissident/Occupy – or insert your ID politic here ______.

    Historically, there has often been tension about how to progress at FC. In two years there will be a ‘Whole Foods’ on Speedway and Campbell. Not much further out there will be more corporate chain investment on the co-op’s door step. More than a few Co-ops have gone under for failing to stay abreast of change. FC was in serious jeopardy of the same fate. I commend the Food Conspiracy for daring to change. If FC had simply stayed holed up as they were their days were numbered. We are very fortunate indeed to have established a community owned business which is at it’s core NOT a corporation. Cultural revival can still happen, but thank goodness the store has a better infrastructure to house and nurture that now. The Co-op remains perhaps our best possibility for shared strength and ability to focus our economic energy onto the path of choice and sustainability while leaving a key in the hands of the members and community which can open the door of joy and possibility.

    PS: I’m a former employee and member since ’87.

    PPS: Your definition of co-op seems in need of some further clarification. Worker owned businesses are not necessarily co-ops and co-ops are not necessarily worker owned business. Further, most worker owned businesses engage in contractual employment. Food Conspiracy is a buyer’s co-op. with single equal owner shares built on the Rochdale model. This is the way the overwhelming majority of co-ops are structured and governed by far. * See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rochdale_Principles Come to the annual meeting March 3rd and you may get some answers to your concerns. Your article was clearly an editorial expressing cultural perception. It would do well to include more history, interviewed sources and research.

  5. Doctress Neutopia
    March 1, 2013

    Greg, how to you feel the co-cop could become more of a conspiracy? Is it a customer relations problem or it is a structural problem? If you go to the March 3rd meeting, what will you ask them to do?

  6. GSE
    March 1, 2013

    It is important to note that my article is based on very real impressions (that are shared by others that I know) of the Food Co-op after its recent renovation and is not attempting to be a systematic critique of food cooperatives. Nor is my viewpoint representative of the public as a whole. For example, I’m a vegetarian and most people aren’t, so I’m sure most people aren’t bothered by the fact that there is getting to be more and more meat in the store, nor by how it is being increasingly displayed and featured. Indeed some, such as one commentator on the Facebook page, might even enjoy seeing us vegetarians being put in our place. The fact remains, however, is that virtually everywhere I go in this country already reflects our meat obsessed culture, and it used to be nice that the Food Co-op was an exception to that and so, of course, I would notice the reality that it increasingly isn’t.

    Also, everybody should note that I expressed a concern in the article that my criticisms would be rejected, or at least minimized, by pointing out that, though a co-owner, I’m “not involved” with the Co-op and that the solution would be for me to get active–which is why I put in a disclaimer that I’m already active in many places already (for example, building alternative media with the Occupied Tucson Citizen) and simply do not have the time to get active with the Food Co-op itself.

    Indeed, after I’d been in the renovated Food Co-op a few times and started to get something of the not great vibe I described in my article, my sense was of guilt, that I’d somehow let this happen by not being involved. Of course, this didn’t last long as there is simply no way that I could find the time to do more (and, indeed, I’ve known people who got heavily involved with the Food Co-op, even served on the board, and were unable to stop it from continuing to move in its current direction). And this points to the problem in any enterprise (especially a cooperative one) that the time that paid staff puts in is their work time, and time that activists put in is their free time. Hence, my activism for various organizations is threatening me financially, so I (and many other activist types) have no time for the Food Co-op, which is a tremendous advantage for the managers who are there, working all day anyway. This is not to say that such managers are bad or malevolent, quite the contrary, but they will tend toward a more standard corporate model, and indeed may attempt to compensate for this by articulating social and political concerns regarding external matters

    And this points to what I was trying to say in my previous post. It is certainly true that there is a difference between workers’ co-ops and buyers’ co-ops, but both (the point of my post) are under constant pressure from the larger, capitalist system that they are operating under, and many of the changes that they make that seem to go against their original mission are often defended on that basis (as is being done in the case of the Food Co-op). And, perhaps, legitimately so. But we shouldn’t lose sight of what is really happening here–the increasing corporatization not just of our economy but of our very culture (which, you might remember, is the subject of this series of articles)–and if we just blithely celebrate, or even accept, each step on the road to economic rationalization and corporatization of once counter cultural institutions the major differences under the skin between the Co-op and it’s competition will soon become as difficult to discern as the differences on the surface seem to be now.

  7. GSE
    March 2, 2013

    And, as a short postscript (and to answer Doctress Neutopia’s question about what I’d propose): as a start, the Food Co-Op could at the very least bring back some of the practices that distinguished it on the surface from corporate stores. First and foremost, the bag credit (why on earth did they get rid of that? Even Whole Foods still gives you that.) or, even better yet, charging people for bags if they need them; second, putting the GMO information about the products that they are selling back out on display; third, if they really are trying to be a community space, allowing some space for community publications such as the OTC; fourth, not featuring pictures of happy employees endorsing the store, not because the employees might not be happy (this I can’t say), but because this is standard corporate practice that, e.g., Walmart uses when we know damn well that most of their employees aren’t happy and so maybe shouldn’t be imitated by the Food Co-op, etc.

  8. David
    February 1, 2014

    We get to keep our Food Co-ops when those Co-ops can pay its bills.

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