Documentary about food co-ops has plenty of local flavor
Special screening Thursday
Inside the Montague food cooperative, which got started in the late 1970s. Tom Tolg, one of the co-op's founders, is seen here behind the counter.
The food co-op that got its start in Montague, moved to Chapman Street in Greenfield in the 1980s. Now known as Green Fields Market, the co-op is on Main Street.
The recipe for area filmmaker Steve Alves’ new documentary about food co-ops is essentially “one part food, to two parts politics, to three parts economics.”
All come together in the full-length documentary, “Food for Change,” which got its start on Greenfield’s Main Street and will return there Thursday for a “sneak preview” at the Garden Theater.
The film got its start six years ago at the suggestion of Green Fields Market’s manager Suzette Snow-Cobb as a way to “tell their story,” says Alves, who began delving more deeply into the social history of food co-ops.
The Greenfield screening on Thursday at 7 p.m., three days before the film will have its official premiere for more than 500 people at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn., recognizes the leading role that this area played in making the $300,000 project happen, even though funding for the project comes from more than 100 cooperatives around the country. The St. Paul showing will have a simultaneous webcast at 75 co-ops across the country.
Still, much of the film is shot in Greenfield and in Turners Falls, where the Montague Food Co-Op was founded in 1977, during what Alves refers to as “the second wave” of 1960s and 1970s-era version of cooperatives popularized during the 1930s.
“Food Co-ops were a byproduct of the Great Depression,” said co-op historian David Thompson. “The disparity in wealth between the haves and the don’t haves was the spark that ignited co-ops. As co-ops grew, they restored hope to millions of Americans who began to gain some economic control over their lives and their communities just as co-ops are doing today.”
With a goal of no exploitation, an emphasis on cooperation rather competition, these democratically run, collectively owned businesses blossomed in this country in the 1930s the 1940s, especially in the Midwest. There were hundreds of small, collectively owned groceries and 15 regional warehouses by 1938, described as “the middle path between capitalism and socialism.”
“What happened?” Alves and other observers were left wondering.
With World War II and its aftermath, a resurgence of a corporate economy and an emphasis on consumerism dominated American society, backed by the power of supermarket chains and the television as an advertising medium.
“Big business regained an influential role within the government, laying the groundwork for a post-war culture based on mass-production, corporate consolidation and rampant consumerism.”
The film, with Alves as narrator, says, “The dreamworld of utopian consumers surpasses co-operative idealism for a better society. The cooperative approach of active involvement to address local needs seems of a bygone era.”
If that weren’t bad enough, “Food for Change” describes how co-ops and their backers were smeared in the 1950s as communists for favoring shared ownership rather than competition. Their practice of sharing profits with members was labeled un-American by corporate opponents who formed a National Tax Equality Association to press the government to tax those profits instead.
And yet, with help from federal anti-poverty programs in the 1960s, a new wave of buying groups and co-ops emerged, like the Montague co-op to promote social justice and counteract rising prices, as well as to promote food not tainted by the pesticides and chemicals that had been introduced in the years after the war.
“A huge part of the mission was to bring healthier food to the American diet,” Alves says.
The Montague co-op, which initially operated out of a founding member’s Turners Falls apartment before relocating to Avenue A, moved again in the 1980s to Greenfield’s Chapman Street and later Main Street as Green Fields Market.
Together with its McCusker’s Market in Shelburne Falls, Franklin Community Co-op now has a combined membership of 2,150, with $7.6 million in combined sales and 75 employees.
About 200 food co-ops survive from that era, and others, like River Valley Market in Northampton, have started since and become wildly successful, says the film, part of which was shown at the United Nations last November to mark its “Year of the Co-Operative.”
Alves’ most recent film in 2004, “Talking to the Wall: The Story of an American Bargain,” traced the history of chain stores and the growing impact of Walmart on the American economy.
“Making that film gave me a deeper understanding of the very lost history of what was at stake during the rise of chain stores in America, and I was directly able to apply that” in the new documentary, says Alves. “They’re not really what I would call authentically part of communities or authentically concerned with communities. Co-ops truly are about striving for equitability across the board within the whole food system.”
The 2008 recession drove home for Alves that this project was “a way to tell a natural story, a wonderful narrative that placed the striving of everyday people for more fairness across the board. The filmmaker widened the focus of what had begun as a locally oriented documentary.
Instead of mainstream commercialism, which he describes as “a race to the bottom,” Thompson says, “What cooperatives are is a means of raising everybody to the top.”
Despite their success, Alves said, food co-ops continue to struggle, as chain supermarkets offer organic, “all-natural” and local products that are staples for many co-op shoppers.
The film describes how the nation’s co-ops in the 1970s were on their way to developing an independent distribution system with 30 regional warehouses around the country, but how that system’s collapse — and the dependence of co-ops on a very small number of very big distributors is a key frustration.
At the same time, he says many co-ops are working to develop their own network of local producers for food security, cooperating with local producers and as a way of boosting the local economy.
“Today we’re experiencing a growth in food co-ops,” says Snow-Cobb. “Food co-ops have long had an important role in our food system and our communities, and people are recognizing that co-operatives are an avenue for more control and empowerment in access to healthy foods.”
Proceeds from this showing will go to Green Fields Market’s Education and Scholarship Fund.
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