Student co-op brings the collective grocer back to Berkeley
by Reporter Thomas Peele, kalwnews.org
March 16th 2011
By Jake Schoneker
Americans, on the whole, think a lot about food.
“FOOD INC.”: There is this deliberate veil, this curtain between us and where our food is coming from.
“GOOD MORNING AMERICA “: The most convenient food is not always the most nutritious.
ELMO (from “Sesame Street”): Mrs. Obama wants a healthy lunch. Elmo wants a healthy lunch too!
We’re thinking more about what we eat, where we buy it … and how we can use food to connect with our communities. Those are fundamental principles shared by cooperative (co-op) grocery stores. They offer a different kind of shopping experience from your average Walmart or Safeway.
It’s a more personal and community-based way of doing business – and it’s catching on around the country. According to the co-op directory service, there are more than 400 collectively owned grocery stores, food distributors and buying clubs across the country. And until a few months ago, none of them were in Berkeley, California. That’s right: none of them. That wasn’t always the case, and it isn’t anymore.
Reporter Jake Schoneker has the history of the Berkeley cooperative movement, and the backstory on how its latest co-op came to be.
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JAKE SCHONEKER: For most of the 20th century, co-ops dominated the grocery market in Berkeley. The Consumer Cooperative of Berkeley opened its first store on Shattuck in 1937.
By the mid-Sixties, it had more than 30,000 members.
DAVE FOGARTY: When I moved to Berkeley in 1965, the three cooperative grocery stores in Berkeley were probably the most visible institution in the entire community.
Dave Fogarty is the project coordinator with Berkeley’s Economic Development Office. He says back in the ‘60s, the co-op wasn’t just about cheap food. It was a political force active in the anti-war movement.
FOGARTY: The anti-war movement, and the other movements of the ‘60s. All of the demonstrations were organized by leafleting at the co-ops. There was really a desire for it to be the nucleus for a whole alternative form of economic organization.
That desire made the co-ops grow fast. Maybe too fast. The collective business approach and the bottom line didn’t always meet. And by the late ‘80s, the Berkeley co-op was bankrupt. Fogarty says the era in which the co-op collapsed is telling.
GORDON GEKKO (Michael Douglas in “Wall Street”): Greed, for a lack of a better word, is good.
FOGARTY: It has to do with the waning of a kind of collectivist idea in American society.
GEKKO: Greed is right.
FOGARTY: In the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s, people saw cooperatives as an alternative to the capitalist food distribution system. And I think that has waned in the present generation.
GEKKO: Greed works.
Today, the grocery market is dominated by chain stores like Safeway and Walmart. They’re not necessarily greedy, but they are big corporations that offer cheap products for low prices. But many consumers have a different set of values when it comes to buying food.
ANNISON DRAMEY: Food is from a sustainable source and it’s not from really far away.
JULIA HAZEL: Making sure that the products offered are organic or local or fair trade.
RICH KLEINMAN: I wanna have a connection with other people who also eat healthy.
Berkeley students Annison Dramey and Julia Hazel, along with researcher Rich Kleinman, gave their input to a group of current and former students, who last October set to work building a new cooperative grocery store from the ground up.
CHRISTINA OATFIELD: In the back room we’ve torn out carpeting since we’re going to be storing food in there.
Co-founder Christina Oatfield graduated from UC Berkeley in 2009.
OATFIELD: We also just moved in a used refrigerator we got from another local business to use in here. We still gotta clean it up a bit.
That job fell to first year student Monica Fink.
MONICA FINK: My hands are pretty much brown. It is grody. And I’m sweating, which is kind of funny since I’m cleaning a fridge.
By November, when the Berkeley Student Food Collective opened for business just off campus near Bancroft and Telegraph, it was sparkling.
All of the store’s produce is organic and comes from within 150 miles of the Bay Area, so you won’t find any bananas or pineapples here. But you will find a unique shopping experience.
CASHIER: You can make a mean vegan mac and cheese with unsweetened, original soymilk and paprika, cumin, salt, Braggs and nutritional yeast.
The collective is more than just a market. It offers its own student-run “DeCal” class at the school, called “Berkeley in the Global Food System.” They take members on field trips to local farms to see where their food comes from. The collective still relies mostly on grant money to keep its doors open, but sales have doubled since last semester. The students are hopeful that as their customer base expands, the store will become a self-sustaining, and inspirational, business.
OATFIELD: The cool thing about co-ops and collectives is that they’re like a lot of little experiments in democracy.
Again, co-founder Christina Oatfield.
OATFIELD: Having people engaged in that kind of small scale democracy is really great for our general public to have, as people who are expected to be civically engaged on a national scale.
Berkeley as a town, and as a school, is famous for bringing people together behind causes they believe in. So it’s no shocker that a store serving that population is not just focused on the bottom line. What might be more surprising is it that it wasn’t here all along.
In Berkeley, I’m Jake Schoneker for Crosscurrents.
Jake Schoneker is a reporter at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. What are the best places to get food in the Bay Area? What are your favorite cooperative businesses? Let us know on our Facebook page.
Original Page: http://kalwnews.org/audio/2011/03/16/student-co-op-brings-the-collective-grocer-back-berkeley_893133.html
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