Food Cooperation

Last Saturday (ok, by the time I posted this, it’s more appropriate to say, on December 24th) morning Patrick and I got up at 5 a.m., had our tea and a couple of delicious bagels from the prior week’s farmer’s market, and pedaled off to our local food cooperative at 6:15 to start our very first “HOO” shift.

Portland’s People’s Food Co-op is probably about 3/4 of a mile from us—a location which was a key factor for us when choosing this neighborhood. We visited them when made our scouting trip up here before moving. I was frankly kind of stunned by their breadth and depth of selection. It’s a pretty darn small space—though a really well-designed and maximized one—and I had expected it to like many of the co-ops I’ve been exposed to in the past, with a few things I can buy to support the place, but not a staple of my food purchasing. It turned out that they actually have most of the things we use on a regular basis, including toiletries, dairy, bread, bulk, and produce.

There are some holes, which are not surprising because of the investment they require: wine (though they have a small selection of organic wines, which so far have all been good); vitamins and supplements (though with a recent re-set of the store, they’ve gained more room and have started carrying multivitamins); cheese (they have a selection of organic and raw cheddars and jacks, but it’s pretty narrow); and meat. The last could be political, that is, still a majority of owners do not want the co-op to carry meat, or it could be financial, as I imagine the investment and licensing are fairly serious.

Peoples is a true cooperative, focused on serving the community, and supported by folks becoming members or “owners.” You buy a share, and can then vote for the board of directors, and vote on changes proposed by the directors. We became members the week we moved here—it was one of the highlights of that week. We happened to show up on member-appreciation day, and they had live music, tons of folks milling about, and lots of free samples being offered by the people who produced them. Twas a perfect day to sign up! When we’d checked out their web site before moving, we’d been very pleased that this was a co-op of the old school, where you can actually contribute your labor in exchange for an additional discount. We asked about it when we signed up and got the application packet.

You’re called a Hands-on Owner, or HOO, when you volunteer. You fill out quite an extensive application, with good questions, and say whether you are interested in a regular shift, or want to do special projects or fill in for folks. We, being the ordered folk we are, wanted a shift.1

We were hopeful we might get a shift fairly easily, because we are morning people. Though I am impressed by the age range of folks shopping and working at Peoples, still, a lot of the folks we’d seen working are younger than us. This is saying less than it used to, nevertheless, we assumed they’d be more apt to favor later shifts. So, after agonizing over our applications,2 we sent them off. We heard from the staffing people after a couple weeks, and were seriously disappointed to hear that there were no open shifts at the time. The email said that it can take quite a while to get one, since the HOO program is very popular. It is no surprise to me that this is so, since, if you work a full, regular shift, which is 12 hours a month, you get a 15% discount on top of your regular 4% for being a member.

We got an announcement for the annual meeting in snailmail soon after, with an election ballot, and decided to go to the board of directors meeting and check it out. The meeting turned out to be quite fascinating, an opening to start learning the political ins-and-outs of the co-op and see what directions were being explored. There was a detailed presentation on a proposal to change the structure of the member discount in quite a dramatic way. The proposed change would end the register discount of 4%, replacing it with an annual dividend (similar to what REI does, for those who are members there).

To me, the proposed changes make a lot of sense. As one of the presenters noted, the cash register discount basically gives away money before the we even know whether the co-op has broken even for the year, much less put money aside for capital investments, maintenance, better pay for staff, or any of the many community projects, ongoing or proposed. There have been many capital expenses recently, as is clear from the beautiful facility, and the new register system and other improvements going in this week. With a dividend model, the board will be able to look at the books at the close of the fiscal year, and make decisions about how to best disburse any profits to fulfill the mission of the co-op, and ensure its longevity. Having watched many co-ops disappear in my life, I can only say hallelujah to that idea. Of course, that election is still pending, and still contentious, as evidenced at the meeting. I am hopeful, however.

I was very impressed with the meeting. It was well-managed and informative (and there was really good beer—Patrick should describe that3). At one point, after the member dividend proposal had been described, a member spoke up to ask why more member outreach hadn’t occured between a meeting in August and this meeting (in December). I was sure, as soon as the person started, that the meeting was shot to hell. I have been in a lot of collective and cooperative meetings that have gone on for eons as a result of this kind of de-railer. I was obviously not at the August meeting, and from the ensuing discussion and some comments made after the meeting broke, it is clear that the first response to this proposal was not very positive. The board seems, however, to have worked hard to take into account a lot of the feedback it received, and this meeting was a chance to check in again and make a last pitch before the vote on it in the spring. When dissatisfied-guy spoke up, I honestly felt a physical desire to bolt. I was surprised and very pleased, however, when, instead of the meeting falling to pieces, various board members and staff, as well as other members made a few cogent responses to the member’s complaint, and then moved the meeting forward. It gives me hope for this co-op, and also for my own participation with it.

I think the cooperative model has a lot of potential as an alternative to, say, the corporate model that currently dominates the world economy. We need these alternative institutions to teach us how to live differently, and to create community networks of dependency. When capitalism runs out of gas—literally—these are the things that will provide some structure for human society to possibly avoid chaos and violent competition for resources. But in my experience and research, many of these experiments seems to assume an identity between cooperative structure and collective decision-making. I do not think that model works for most things. I believe in the value of expertise. Despite our society’s romance with youth, the wisdom that comes with age and experience provides a lot of perspective and skill that does not come from native genius. And while there is something to be said for hearing all sides of an argument, I have concluded that, quite often, what is to be said for it is that it’s overrated! Most sides to arguments are just stupid or ill-informed. These are not Platonic learning experiences, they are shouts in the wilderness in the hopes of being seen. Yes, I am a curmudgeon. But I also sincerely would like to see more successful cooperative ventures—wait, “would like” is not strong enough. I am afraid for our society. We need better models. These will only stem from an acknowledgement of the value of skill and experience, and the creation of opportunities to learn from them.

So far, I am impressed by the structures that Peoples’ has in place to do that. Only time and more involvement on my part will prove whether my optimism is well-placed.

Speaking of getting experience, a couple of weeks after that annual meeting, I got a phone call offering us a 6 a.m. Saturday shift working produce—our first choice of areas! Wahoo! We jumped on it, despite the fact that it puts a kink in our plans to become expert trackers. We had so much fun at our first shift that instead of alternating, we’re thinking about both going in each week. We got to spend 3 hours groping fruits and veggies, setting the stage as it were, for a day at the co-op, by putting out the storefront displays and carts. The work all seemed even lighter because of the good conversation that accompanied it.

I was so struck by what a pleasure work is when done in good company. I am so saddened by what a piecemeal, alienated mess work has become in our society. It is hurting all of us to live in a world that has placed the highest value on money, not work, on efficiency and profit margins over quality and camaraderie. Pah! We are paying for it every day, in antidepressants, violence, and dullness.

Spending those few hours doing work among people with whom I share a commitment to good food and community was so nurturing to me. I felt energized. And doing this work is another step in fulfilling my life-commitment to shorten the distance between me and the sources of my subsistence.


 1. While the joys of spontaneity are oft-celebrated in today’s society, I find that routine is the surest route to managing a full life. Pretty much all of the positive changes I have made to reduce anxiety and stress, and improve my health have involved implementing routines. From an anthropological perspective, routine is a building-block of culture—our species is hard-wired for pattern. It is what frees our brains for creativity.

 2. We’re such geeks!

 3. Patrick here. It was a winter squash beer, named Greg, from Hair of the Dog brewery here in Portland. The beer was tart, effervescent, and light-bodied, though apparently high in alcohol. It was not very hoppy, and not very malty, either, which meant that Holly actually liked it (I think we have identified Holly’s dislike of beer as being tied to the maltiness in the flavor profile). I liked it too. Also it had a spunky bright yellow color. And it was free!

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3 Responses to Food Cooperation

  1. Jennifer says:

    What a great post! I’ve just joined the council of our local co-op and am constantly amazed by our little store. What really amazes me, though, is how different and radical the notion of a co-op is in our society. I wish that wasn’t the case. Can you imagine a world which operated more cooperatively? It would be fantastic–hard work to do it, but fantastic! Congrats on your move to PDX–it is one of my favorite cities too, and for most of the reasons you note.

  2. jen maiser says:

    I am officially so jealous of you guys and your new adventures … didn’t I already say I was jealous in a post down below somewhere? šŸ˜‰ Sounds like a blast, and very educational as well. I wish that our co-op (Rainbow Grocery) had a system like this … I think it’s only a worker co-op, but I’m gonna have to look into it a little further.

    Thanks for all the fun stories.

    And, yes you’re geeks but it’s what keeps me coming back.

  3. Deanna says:

    You guys are amazing!
    I look even more forward to your pre-sunrise presence on Saturday after reading this!

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