Co-ops; Choosing and Creating Change

Courtesy of Divine Light Coaching

In the Beginning…

In 1970, I joined my first co-op when I was a graduate student in physics at SUNYA. A group of young faculty members, graduate students, and undergraduates living in the Washington Park area decided to band together, rent a small vacant storefront on Dove Street, and open a food cooperative “for the people”. We called it the Dove Street Food Cooperative, the first in the Albany area since WWII.

Dove Street storefront as it appears today. (photo credit: D. Shibut)

Era of Corporate Exploitation

In 1970 the Vietnam War raged on in a blind massacre, and in China Mao unleashed his Cultural Revolution to wipe out the country’s educated elite. Our youth generation responded to these disturbing events with our own movement, which sought to change the status quo for the good of the whole. It was a national movement that became known as the Counter-Culture Movement. A vital part of this movement was the creation of food co-ops across the country.

The objective of the Dove Street Food Co-Op was to provide an alternative food store to the exploitative, monopolistic corporate chains such as Price Chopper around the corner. These supermarkets were systematically destroying the health and well-being of American shoppers for the sole purpose of boosting profits. Their packaged food offerings contained the cheapest ingredients at the highest price. Their shelves were crammed with processed products that appeared to offer variety, but the only variety was in their packaging. Nearly all these foods were a combination of four basic ingredients: flour, fat, salt, and sugar – all preserved with chemical additives for shelf-life, not human-life. Genuinely diverse food products and fresh produce were all but ignored.

The Dove Street Co-op, like others, sought to cut out these corporate middlemen and offer quality foods, especially the best fresh produce available. Also included were specialty organic foods identified with our counter-culture generation, such as organic yogurt, peanut butter, honey, soybean and sunflower oils, whole-grain rice, whole-grain lentils, whole-grain breads, and tamari sauce.

The Dove’s Rise and Demise

The Dove Street Co-op had occasional weekly store hours and was a bare-bones, voluntary operation; there was no staff and no one was paid. Unfortunately, the Dove Street Co-op did not have a long run. It ended by ‘accident’ in 1973 when vandals started a fire one night behind the store. There wasn’t much damage, but the owner of the building canceled our verbal rental agreement. At that point, the Co-op had no money and nowhere to go.

Despite the closing of the Dove Street Co-op, the youthful counter-culture movement continued expanding unabated, with cooperatives sprouting up across the country. When Honest Weight started in 1976, a number of former Dove Street Co-op members eagerly joined and are still there today. By 1974, I had moved out-of-state but continued to join co-ops.

Quail Street storefront of Honest Weight Food Co-Op circa 1976. (photo courtesy of HWFC archives)

Over the years I’ve kept in contact with these members who would relay the steady growth and success of the Honest Weight Food Co-op. In visits there, I’ve been impressed by its expansion to over 13,000 shoppers and $32 million turnover, rivaling the best corporate chains. And this happened because many people, who wanted to do the right thing, devoted their time and energy to make the Co-op a successful alternative to corporate chains.

New Era of Global Warming

By 1992 a new menace appeared on the collective radar screen. At the Rio World Summit, the scientific community warned country leaders that planet Earth was experiencing a rapid, exponential rise in average temperature, not seen before in millions of years. This change in temperature would push world climates to their extremes, causing record droughts, floods, heat-waves, wildfires, and more violent storm systems. These destabilizing climate patterns would certainly also impact food production everywhere and could lead to a worldwide famine.

A decade before, lead climate scientists had identified the primary cause of this global warming: us. Our use of fossil fuels in generating more and more electricity and our fueling more and more vehicles was sending up a massive daily cloud of heat-trapping gases, especially CO2.

Global warming is a threat to all humanity and to all life on Earth. But, just as in the 70s, the richest corporations and their government minions refused to change the status quo and alleviate the situation; they were making too much money to quit. And, as before, activists took direct action locally, nationally, and worldwide. Today, it’s called the environmental movement.

The stakes couldn’t be higher: global famine and mass extinction of most life. Today, the effects of global warming and climate change are much more apparent. The polar ice caps and the Greenland ice sheet are fracturing and melting three times faster than scientists had predicted in the ’90s. Also unexpected was how quickly ocean warming has taken place, faster than land temperature. Higher water temperatures and acidity from absorbing CO2 have now destroyed two-thirds of the world’s coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, one of the natural wonders of the world.

Alongside climate scientists and geophysicists, biologists are now also ringing the alarm bell. Their surveys of living things from birds, frogs, and butterflies to flowers, primates, and trees show that life on Earth is disappearing much faster than reproduction can replace them. The data indicates that we are undergoing the Sixth Mass Extinction in the Earth’s history.

Closer to home, in 2012 New York state lost more than 50 percent of its apple harvest due to reverses in winter-spring climate. At the same time, Michigan lost 90 percent of its apples. And this spring-summer season the High Plain states of Montana and the Dakotas lost nearly 50 percent of their grain crops due to an intense record “flash drought.” Farmers and ranchers are calling it a “cereal killer” not seen in a lifetime. This growing region is referred to as the ‘Bread Basket’ of the world, so the potential for suffering is already on the horizon.

Like global warming, climate change destruction is happening on a global scale. In 2015, the nations of the world came together and, for the first time in recent history, nearly unanimously pledged to reduce their heat-trapping gas emissions to limit global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius. But, this year, Donald Trump pulled the US out of this climate agreement, citing economic harm to the country; in reality, the harm was only to the fossil-fuel corporate empires of Exxon-Mobil and Koch Industries.

We don’t have to be hapless victims of this situation, today we have a choice of actions to change things for the better. Thanks to advances in technology in the last five years which have reduced costs and optimized performance, nearly everyone can afford solar panels for generating green electricity and an electric car to eliminate tail-pipe exhaust.

Also, like in previous eras, food co-ops have done their part in helping society transition, this time to clean, renewable energy.

More about this in the next segment, in October’s  Co-op Voice.

Dennis Shibut is an environmental physicist and technical communicator. A former researcher for NASA and the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, he publishes the Kyoto Action Report. He is also a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Sierra Club. He is currently an Ambassador at Enercoop in France where he resides and has been a life-long ‘co-oper’ in food, housing, banking, and electric utilities.