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UN to screen film inspired by Greenfield co-op

When Green Fields Market asked local filmmaker Steve Alves about five years ago to make a documentary about the little Franklin County coop that grew into a mainstay of the local business community, no one imagined that it would have its premiere screening at the United Nations.

But there’s Green Fields Market, just 12 seconds into the film, with its “Everyone is welcome” motto atop the doorway, making its way to the UN’s International Year of Cooperatives Short Film Festival next Tuesday.

In fact, the 15-minute entry drawn from Alves’ feature-length film,“Food for Change,” one of seven films chosen to celebrate the ‘UN Year of the Cooperative,’ focuses mostly on Minneapolis-St. Paul, which has the largest concentration of food co-ops in the country — 12 co-ops in a 25-mile radius of the Twin Cities serving 70,000 members with products worth $151 million in annual sales.

“The Twin Cities Story,” as the segment is called,” will be part of the closing ceremony for the year of cooperatives, which will then open an entire decade of celebrating cooperatives as a way of empowering people around the globe.

The segment is one chapter of Alves film, which he plans to complete next spring. The complete film traces the history of co-operatives to the mid-19th century, with a renaissance in the 1930s in response to the Great Depression and then again in the 1960s and ’70s, as the Baby Boomer generation, feeling its oats, sought to recapture control of food from corporations.

Among the start-ups of that era was the Montague Food Co-Op, started in 1977 by Tom Tolg and others who describe their motivation as wanting to make healthy food available for all classes of people.

The store, which operated out of someone’s apartment before moving to Avenue A and then to Greenfield in the 1980s, now operates its Main Street storefront in Greenfield as well as McCusker’s Market in Shelburne Falls, with a combined membership of 2,150, $7.6 million in combined sales and 75 employees.

“It’s pretty neat,” said Suzette Snow-Cobb, who co-manages the co-op and who, along with Alves and a half-dozen other members, manage Franklin Community Co-op, which operates the two stores. The feature-length documentary, in which Alves traces the drive to cooperate back to research by Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson on tribalism in humans and to England in 1844, was envisioned to be an “educational film” for co-op members and staff that gave a sense of the store’s history as well as an explanation of what a co-operative is.

Funding for the film comes principally from 92 co-ops in 28 states, including Franklin Community Coop and River Valley Market in Northampton. Alves said he hopes that the UN presentation will make it easier to do fundraising for the remainder of the feature-length film.

“For years, we hadn’t given as much attention to education about cooperatives as we should,” Snow-Cobb wrote last spring in an appeal for other co-ops to add to their original $35,000 investment. “We believe that a well-made documentary that tells both our history and the current things we are doing to create strong, economically stable communities, is a great way to portray what we’re about. It has the potential to reach millions of people.”

In declaring 2012 the International Year of Cooperatives, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “Cooperatives are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility.”

Green Fields Market will host a local showing of the UN co-op film Dec. 1 from 2 to 4 p.m. with Alves on hand to discuss his work.

Alves, a filmmaker whose most recent film in 2004, “Talking to the Wall: The Story of an American Bargain,” traces the history of chain stores and their growing impact on the American economy, says the tone of the co-op project he began in early 2007 changed not only when he realized there was a bigger, national, story there, but also when the economy collapsed in 2008.

“I didn’t think that it was going to be that relevant, at least to the zeitgeist of our era,” Alves said of the film with an original working title of “Shopping for a Better World.” “And then the crash happened,” echoing the themes of wealth disparity, corruption and fraudulent credit schemes that had sent the American economy into a tailspin in the 1930s.

But if Alves sees economic cooperation as “the road to survival for humanity,” he said, his aim isn’t to treat corporate America as “the heavy. The bigger theme is human survivability.

“Whatever structure we come up with, it needs to have the elements of fairness, morality, and the interests of larger numbers of people, as well as providing education for more people and dealing with the consequences of poverty across the board for all of us.

“There’s nothing wrong with free enterprise,” Alves said. “It’s the monopolies that big businesses create that end up hammering their suppliers, benefiting a few and seemingly benefiting consumers, but in the long run actually undermining their middle class consumers’ lifestyle.”

In fact, Alves, who’s still trying to raise the last $68,000 toward his $300,000 project, points to ways in which cooperative— working together to build efficiencies so they can compete with corporate food chains — have consolidated their own suppliers to create a monopoly.

“If you go to different co-ops, you see a lot of similar products now that are sold in supermarkets as well,” said Alves, pointing out that this was not always the case. And yet he said, co-ops, which are experiencing a boom today in reaction to the tough economy and the example of successful co-ops, work hard to reflect the unique needs of their communities.

If not for co-ops, he argues, the $12-15 billion organic industry probably wouldn’t be what it is today.

A new downtown co-op is being planned for Keene, N.H., where there will be an emphasis on locally produced food. And a group is also looking into forming a co-op in Amherst, which was host to Yellow Sun Co-Op in the 1970s. In those cases, as it was for River Valley Market in Northampton, Green Fields Market and other existing co-ops are resources that offer help to new initiatives.

The ‘explosion of co-ops’ in recent years, has been driven largely by people’s overall dissatisfaction with the overall food delivery system and an overall frustration with corporations, said Snow-Cobb. The network among cooperatives does a better job of helping start-ups meet the needs of their members.

Alves, in his longer documentary, shows that through history, co-ops have come under attack from the banking industry and political forces that have portrayed them as un-American. But by looking after not only their members but also their workers and their suppliers and communities, their role has been to work for the common good.

“It’s not just that you’re getting good value on your food,” Alves said. “It’s that your values are expressed in the way you shop.”

On the Web: http://foodforchange.coop

You can reach Richie Davis at:
or 413-772-0261, ext. 269

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