The history of the food co-op is longer than you might think –


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When we think of food cooperatives, most of us also think of organically-produced food products on sale. But the connection between the food cooperatives formed in the 1970s and ‘80s and organic foods was not inevitable, according to Craig B. Upright’s history of the rise of Minnesota’s New Wave cooperatives.“First, cooperatives did not emerge primarily to serve as a vendor for organic and natural foods,” Upright writes in the introduction to his 2020 book, “Grocery Activism: The Radical History of Food Cooperatives in Minnesota.”“Cooperatives formed to promote social change … At first, selling natural or organic foods was an extension of other activities and interests, all directed towards critiquing the mainstream institutions of the day.” 

Food co-ops were, and still are, an important part of Minnesota history. Upright’s research found that at least 80 of them formed in Minnesota between 1970 and 1999. Although many of them were in the Twin Cities, the majority were in small towns. Cambridge, Litchfield, Ortonville and Windom, among many others, all had a co-op.“Grocery Activists” tracks the history of those food cooperatives and organically-grown food as the two developed in parallel before they eventually intersected and became connected.In the books’ first chapter, entitled “The Cause of Organic Food,” the author writes about Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic agricultural practices and J.I. Rodale’s experiments with what he grew to call organic farming and gardening. The general public started to pay attention to Rodale’s work following the 1959 Food and Drug Administration’s recall of carcinogenic herbicide contaminated cranberries two weeks before Thanksgiving.Rachel Carson’s 1962 condemnation of the widespread agricultural use of DDT, in her book “Silent Spring,” left Americans wondering about the safety of their food, Upright writes.Upright quotes a 1972 Washington Post editorial: “It is news to no one that a big tonnage of the food eaten every day by Americans is worthless, tasteless, contrived, and can occasionally be actually dangerous to health . . . in many cases the consumers who are rejecting it are turning to what are called organic foods.”But the U.S. Department of Agriculture didn’t see it that way.
“Organic and natural are terms that have been used by some groups to refer to foods grown in soil fertilized with only compost or manure. However, no sound scientific evidence demonstrates that such foods have nutritive values or health factors superior to foods produced with an appropriate combination of fertilizers,” USDA’s 1965 yearbook wrote in an article entitled “Food Quackery.”The Minnesota food cooperative movement began two years before the Washington Post wrote its condemnation of American food. Those cooperatives were selling bulk organic nuts and grains from the church basements. But, in chapter two, Upright demonstrates that their historical origins were with the farmers cooperative of the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. He does an excellent job of showing the reader how this new wave of food cooperatives is linked to Minnesota’s (and the entire country’s) long history of cooperative development.Cooperatives, Upright writes, were always formed due to some failure in the market. In the 1960s and ‘70s a growing number of young people felt that the increasing industrialization of agriculture, combined with the corporate control of the nation’s food supply, were a significant market failure. Small cooperative grocery stores were a logical response to that failure. But the issue of whether or not those stores would focus on selling organically grown food was not settled until the mid-1970s, at the end of the Co-op Wars.In his fourth chapter, “Dissent Among the Dissenters,” Upright writes about the occasionally violent struggle for control between two factions of the largely Twin Cities based founders of the cooperative movement. There were two results from the 1970s Co-op Wars, Upright says. One was that food cooperatives became what we know them as today. The other was that, over the next decade, cooperatives spread across the state.That very success planted the seeds of cooperative’s potential doom, however. “Amazon’s (2017) acquisition of Whole Foods was just the latest piece of evidence that organic food had become a mainstream consumer item,” Upright writes.How can food cooperatives survive in the face of stiff competition from the likes of Amazon? Upright asks that question toward the end of the book and answers it. In fact, the entire book is an exploration of why cooperatives are surviving and will continue to do so.If you’re interested in cooperative, agriculture, food, or simply Minnesota history, you’ll find “Grocery Activism: The Radical History of Food Cooperatives in Minnesota” well worth reading. It’s published by the University of Minnesota Press and is available in book stores.   

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