Book Review: Grocery Story – The Promise of Food Co-ops in the Age of Grocery Giants

Joe Wade
December 19th 2019

by Joe Wade, board member of Provender Alliance

What do you get when you cross a Doukhobor with a draft dodger?

The answer emerges in a very important new book from Jon Steinman “Grocery Story – The Promise of Food Co-ops in the Age of Grocery Giants” (2019, New Society).

Grocery Story Book CoverThe first quarter of this book lays out what is meant by the Age of Grocery Giants. I point this out because if you read it slowly, as I did, the tragic progression of grocery retailers from large to huge to overwhelmingly dominant is a sad, sad story. You may sag under the weight of this history by about page 80 but stick with it. This telling of our tale is symphonic and has three movements. You will be rewarded if you stay through to the finale.

We learn that the age of acquisitions is more common in American grocery (US and Canadian ) than we might have thought. As we saw Amazon gobble up Whole Foods in 2017, Steinman reminds us that the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (A&P) in 1929 came to control 16,000 grocery stores and 1,000 warehouses across the US. It was “the country’s largest coffee importer…wholesale produce dealer and butter buyer and second-largest baker”. He traces the rise and fall of that grocery empire as well as subsequent waves of acquisition leading up to our current condition.

The inevitable consequences of such dominance are told in vivid detail. Retail banner dominance leads to brand dominance. Retail prices become disconnected from production costs. Contact with consumers and municipalities wither away. Ultimately the producing farmer loses – first income then land. The farmers’ share of each consumer dollar spent in 1950 was 41%. In 2016 it was 14.8%, reported by the USDA.

The mess that we’ve gotten ourselves into now is a fine one indeed. By 2017 the five largest food retailers in the US accounted for 66% of all US retail food purchases. Do you think that’s startling? In Canada, it’s nearly 80%. These alarming figures are amply documented in charts and footnotes throughout the first part of the book. A sad picture develops – of an industry without meaningful controls and regulations since the 1980’s careening towards or, in the case of many urban areas already arrived at, monopoly levels of control of retail food business.

Take heart, though! We’re just a quarter of the way through this ultimately inspiring book. And you haven’t even met the Doukhobors yet.

The book’s middle section arrives like the eye of a hurricane. The sky clears. We emerge from cover and begin to assess the extensive damage done. We know that the eye will pass by, and the winds will again be strong, but oh, what a difference when these winds blow the opposite direction!

Steinman takes us next to the metaphorical place of “What’s Possible”. He gives close attention to two communities where the grocery empires have been held at bay and history tells a much different story. These are the towns of Nelson BC, and Virqoua WI. These are examples of communities that have not only maintained their stability but gained economic and social strength from experiences of shared struggle and shared opportunity. They have in common a practice of saying “no thanks” to corporations – including the largest food retail corporations – and instead of building what is needed on their own, while including a cooperative approach to their food economies.

Steinman is from Nelson BC, so we learn about that community in more depth based on his extensive personal involvement with retail, processing, and producer coops. Here is where the Doukhobors and draft dodgers make their entrance.

The Doukhobors are from Russia. An 18th century “folk-Protestant” group, they clashed with Tsarist Russia on several fronts, including their insistence on a form of pacifism. The community was hounded from pillar to post with one branch emigrating to Canada around 1900 (funded in part by Tolstoy). It then settled in southeast BC by 1920 and continued to embody a separatist ethos around issues of military service, private ownership of property, and social conformity.

Draft dodgers from the US arrived in the ’60s and ’70s. From the western US, they often settled in the Slocan Valley and West Kootany, a stone’s throw from Nelson (you can read more on this mini-migration in “Welcome to Resisterville, American Dissidents in British Columbia” by Kathleen Rogers). What you get when you cross a Doukhobor with a draft dodger is a citizen of What’s Possible.

The welcome rest of this book is about the results the strong winds of change have made in so many communities across the US and Canada; awakening local movements that offer welcome alternatives to buying food at the biggest place you can find. This story is far-reaching, and points to even more fertile ground.

Steinman offers detailed stories of the formation of dozens of food coops. He outlines the exact conditions that led to their creation: methods of funding, challenges of locations, staffing, and governance. There are thought-provoking observations; “The success of many co-ops in their new competitive climate indicates that there’s something different about co-ops that draws eater’s interest” There are lots of specifics from lots of different co-ops

The book is also part of something bigger. Steinman just completed an extensive book tour in the US and Canada, visiting hundreds of food coops. That’s right – hundreds. The trip was supported by grants from 15 companies and organizations, ten food coops, and a crowdfunding effort.

The website grocerystory.coop is well worth a visit as well. It justifiably lays claim to “the most up-to-date and comprehensive food co-op directory on the planet,” including a focus section on Start-Up Food Coops.

As varied as these many co-op stories are, the general outlines suggest there may be shared DNA. Is there enough shared DNA that we can still claim to be related? Are we still part of a co-op movement?   I think so, and this book and website are as close to a family album for the co-op movement as I’ve seen. Read it and see if you agree.

 

Joe WadeJoe Wade has lived and worked in the field of natural foods since his college days in Atlanta GA. For many of the early years that was as a retailer in small shops and co-ops. Since relocating to the Seattle area in the late 70’s he’s also worked with large and small distributors, and with brokers – for a total of 40 years in the business and in the natural food community.

He’s been a committed Provendarian for most of those years, staying in touch with friends and being inspired by many a Conference. He and his wife Annie (they met at PCC Co-op) are now empty nesters, except for exchange students, and still in the Seattle area. When not at work as a broker, or enjoying time and meals together with friends, Joe is a serious amateur pianist. He looks forward to being more constantly in touch with the visionary energy and inspired builders that make up Provender Alliance.