All Co-op Meetings of the People’s Food System

Historical Essay

by John Curl, Part Five of an excerpt from a longer essay “Food for People, Not for Profit: The Attack on the Bay Area People’s Food System and the Minneapolis Co-op War: Crisis in the Food Revolution of the 1970s”


Rainbow Grocery on 16th Street in the 1970s.

Photo: courtesy Judy Davis

In the spring of 1975, the People’s Food System—twelve groups at that time—made their first attempt to get better organized by initiating All Co-op and All Collective meetings. In April they held the first All Co-op meeting at the Warehouse, with all the five stores and the various support collectives in attendance. It was reported on in the second issue of the Food System’s new newsletter, Storefront Extension (later called Turnover), which was published out of an upstairs room at the ubiquitous Food Factory:

On April 10, a meeting was held of all the stores and support collectives in the food system to discuss the need for all of us getting together on an ongoing basis. The question was raised as to what form the all food system meetings should take. A conference of one or two days duration was proposed as was an ongoing meeting. We decided on having ongoing meetings for now which would perhaps at some time generate a conference.

People felt the need for two different sorts of ongoing meetings, one dealing with the practical details of everyday work and their political implications, the second dealing with a philosophical overview of the food system and its practical implications.

Each group will meet once every two weeks, on alternate weeks. The following agendas were set for the next two meetings:

Monday, April 14, 7:30 Storefront Overview meeting

1. Survey of groups—what we’re doing in each
2. System-wide decision-making process, the questions of autonomy, authority, expansion, accountability
3. Separatism of women, etc.
4. Ownership of property, buying, etc.
5. Leadership
6. How to disseminate our ideas–education

Monday, April 21, 7:30 Storefront–Day to day operations (what we were calling “practical”)

1. People’s Trucking role in collectives
2. Centralization of trucking
3. Announcements
4. Wages
5. Authority for decisions made
6. Day coordinator/volunteer relations

Monday, April 28, 7:30 Overview—agenda to be set by April 14 meeting

Monday, May 5, 7:30 Operations—agenda to be set at April 21 meeting

Each collective should have one representative at least at each meeting. People should represent only one collective at a given time at a given meeting. We should plan for continuity, especially when one topic is discussed for several meetings running. The same person should not be expected to cover both the overview and operations meetings. To facilitate continuity if one person can’t continue to attend over a long period of time, collectives should have dual representation during the period of transition. (rotation by overlap) Representatives should keep good notes to keep their collectives informed and to facilitate rotation.(29)

Another All Collective meeting followed on May 12. Attending were people from three stores and six support groups: Seeds, Noe Valley, Good Life, SFCW, Veritable Vegetable, Yerba Buena Herbs, Red Star Cheese, People’s Trucking, and the childcare center that would later be called Honey Sandwich.

Minutes of All Collective Meeting, Monday May 12, 1975:

People came, mostly late, and sat around talking about things like the contradictions between working in a cooperative food system while living in a capitalist society; the food system as a means to an end versus the food system as an end in itself; etc. Some folks expressed a desire to move beyond the mechanics of moving food to do things in addition to try and effect a change in the space around us by supporting in word and action other active organizations. It was pointed out that we may have more active and dedicated workers in the food system (sheer numbers that is) than any other radical organization in the Bay Area.

We considered for a while asking each representative to go back to her/his collective and discuss how each group felt about themselves as an individual collective or the food system as a whole supporting the farmworkers, and about whether or not a committee should meet with representatives of the farmworkers to discuss ways in which we could best support them.

We decided instead to ask collectives how each felt about supporting the rent control initiative because it is pressing in as far as if enough signatures aren’t gathered within the next few months, it won’t even get on the ballot, let alone get voted on. Seeing as how we are dealing with one necessity (food), we could selectively decide to try to affect another (shelter). Therefore, each collective is being asked how it feels about the food system as a whole backing rent control, and each store in particular is being asked how it feels about it and how signatures could best be gathered from shoppers should we decide to do so.

All collectives are asked to discuss this at their meetings and to have a representative at the next meeting discussing this which will be Monday 5/26, to report any resolutions, questions, suggestions, etc.(30)

The Bay Area was widely recognized throughout the United States as the most radicalized region in the country at the time. That the People’s Food System had a very open membership and possibly “more active and dedicated workers . . . than any other radical organization” in the area, started out as a strength, but also had the potential of dangerous consequences.(31) According to David Loeb of People’s Bakery, “Groups of us were trying to figure out how we were going to advance the revolutionary cause, whether or not to use the Food System as a basis for that. Our ideology was that we were going to create an alternate system, and people would come to this system because it was so much better for you. But the Food System as a functioning pole of alternative ideology also attracted people who weren’t as committed to the basic mission of providing good food to people and developing a worker collective culture, the two pillars that started it.”(32)

Below the minutes in the newsletter was a sketch of two people touching hands, and an anonymous poem combining the personal and the political, imbued with the high spirit of many people in the People’s Food System:

Together we will grow older
together we will grow old
we will hold each other close
we will hold each other closer
We will hold each other
as the country changes;
we will hold each other
as the world changes.

While the People’s Food System was meeting, the Vietnam War was finally ending. The helicopter evacuation of Americans from Saigon was completed on April 30 1975, resulting in a sea change in the American countercultural youth movement. Almost overnight, large numbers of young activists took a deep breath, then scattered off to start careers or families, go back to school, or play a guitar. The personal rose to the central political agenda. Almost everyone became more self-oriented, self-absorbed, dealing more with their personal oppressions. But this was all about human liberation anyway, which is always personal. In celebration of the end of the Vietnam war, People’s Bakery inserted a little label-sized poster into all their bread packages, beginning a tradition of political bread labels, later often fliers for progressive events.

Meanwhile, the Food System continued to grow, and added new members through 1975. By early ‘76, PFS included twelve more co-ops and collectives. The new stores were Rainbow Grocery at 3159 16th Street, Other Avenues at 4035 Judah, the Tenderloin Store at 451 Ellis, Inner Sunset (also from a food conspiracy) at 1224 9th Avenue; in Berkeley, Ma Revolution at 2525 Telegraph, and Flatlands Community Food Store at 1853 Ashby, and New Oakland at 2710 Park Boulevard. Flatlands was an outgrowth of the East Bay Food Conspiracy. A new bakery was formed in Berkeley and joined the system, Uprisings at 2575 San Pablo, with help from People’s Bakery and loans from the Warehouse and Rainbow Grocery. Amazon Yogurt, Flour Power Mill and People’s Refrigeration joined the crowd in the Food Factory. People from Red Star started Left Wing Poultry and opened a farm in Morgan Hill. An autonomous trucking collective, Truckaderos, worked closely with the system.


Inner Sunset Community Food Store Staff.

Photo: Teitelbaum

Other Avenues, Inner Sunset, Rainbow Grocery, Ma Revolution, Flatlands, People’s Bakery, and Uprisings Bakery all followed the standard Food System structure, incorporating as educational nonprofits, each with a slightly different twist in its incorporation papers.

Rainbow Grocery had a unique origin in that it was started by a San Francisco ashram—a spiritual community—led by the East Indian Guru Maharaji. The ashram needed a fairly large supply of vegetarian “pure” foods on an ongoing basis, as inexpensively as possible. They began a bulk food-buying program, with Rich Israel as coordinator, who also worked at the Warehouse. Israel was instrumental in convincing the ashram to start the community food store. A core group of four formed: Israel, Janet Crolius, Bill Crolius, and John David Williams. They used Noe Valley as a model. The new store was located on 16th near Valencia, a run-down area near neighborhoods with many countercultural young people. Until they incorporated as a nonprofit, Rainbow was under the legal ownership of their main coordinators, the Croliuses. They began with entirely volunteer labor, but within a few months were able to pay the coordinators a minimum wage.

Rainbow quickly became the busiest and most successful store in the Food System, and took on more paid staff into the collective, mostly from people who started as volunteers. Beyond its favorable location, Rainbow’s founders attributed the store’s success, in comparison to the other PFS stores, as due to their service orientation, attention to business, and a wider selection of healthy products beyond bins of whole grains and strict ideological criteria for product selection. In retrospect, Rainbow was later critical of the nonprofit structure they took:

When incorporating, Rainbow workers simply adapted the corporate documents of the People’s Warehouse, which included the Warehouse’s statement of six political principles underlying the Food System. Including the six principles was done, in part, as an attempt to appease the Warehouse’s activists who thought Rainbow was not political enough. Copying from the Warehouse’s incorporation documents also simplified the legal work; unfortunately, the Warehouse’s legal model was not very appropriate or functional. The Warehouse had written up their incorporation documents with the hopes of obtaining tax-exempt charitable status, which they were unable to do. While Rainbow’s workers already knew Rainbow would not qualify as a tax-exempt charity, they still incorporated using the nonprofit model of the Warehouse.(33)

Toward Unification

Although there were no official leaders in the Food System, many of its activities revolved around the Warehouse, so the strongest voices at SFCW were looked to for leadership in PFS. According to Nina Saltman, “Roger was a very smart businessman and largely responsible for the growth of the Warehouse. He showed a lot of leadership. Very political. Largely his perspective became accepted by the group. Adam was vocal. Betty was a strong leader, the moral thermometer of group. Ellen and George Hightower were very practical. Yokini and Hibosheshe were very influential. The warehouse was the de facto leadership of the Food System in many ways. That was because we were the biggest business. It had something to do with the financial aspect of the business itself. Members of every collective who were the leadership of that collective were also very respected in the Food System. Mark Ritchie and Allison and B.G. of Red Star. Margie at the bakery was very influential. Michael Ota who started Good Life. People from Ma’s.”(34)

The All-Co-op meetings (or All-Collective or All-Worker meetings, as they were variously called) were established “to create a system-wide forum for discussing political and organizational concerns” in order to meet the collectives’ common needs.(35) However after a few meetings they remained unable to agree on procedures for making decisions and carrying them out.

A contradiction developed between the need to make system-wide decisions and the need of the collectives for time to discuss and criticize proposals. A series of frustrating and unproductive meetings followed and attendance dwindled as the issues remained unresolved.

In September 1975, several collectives decided to authorize representatives to make decisions for them at the All-Co-op meetings. Other collectives took the position that their autonomy was primary and would only agree to send delegates with instructions to report back about to them about each and every issue.

However, by that time they did work out a Criteria Statement, in which the Food System began to more clearly define itself. It stressed that PFS was not just about food and collectivity, but was part of larger struggles, particularly “against an oppressive capitalist profit-oriented economic system.”(36) The Criteria Statement listed twelve benchmarks that a group needed to fulfill in order to belong to the Food System, including: operate collectively, preferably making decisions by consensus; hold open meetings for community input; struggle to eliminate hierarchy of worker/manager relationships; state a definition of profit and nonprofit; make an effort to understand and eliminate racism, sexism, ageism; challenge participation in imperialism and worker exploitation; not use food to coerce a group or individual to act or think a certain way; not sell food to groups in conflict with these criteria.

Many of the issues and debates that engaged the Food System over its entire life were encapsulated in that statement. Since the politics of people working in PFS spanned a wide spectrum, these political criteria proved very controversial.

Meanwhile, their stasis in decision-making was exacerbated when a dispute arose between Red Star Cheese and People’s Trucking over control of the Red Star truck.(37) They brought it to All-Co-op meetings, which aired the issue several times but was unable to resolve it. Rumors began to fly about fights over control of trucks and tools. Trucks were vandalized. The fragility of the network became apparent to everyone. The inability of the All-Co-op meetings to resolve this controversy led many members to conclude that the Food System needed to become more organized, and to set up a structure that could make decisions. However, this remained complicated by the contradiction between the need to make decisions as a system and the need of the collectives to discuss and criticize proposals. Frustration mounted.

According to Paul Kivel of Earthwork, “constant tensions escalated over time between those who were much more political and wanted the Food System to come together as a larger more powerful voice around either food issues or other political issues, and the folks who were just into food and providing healthy food. Some collectives didn’t want to create a big system that was powerful and directing the individual co-ops. They wanted the collectives to be more autonomous. Other people wanted to create a more centralized structure and leadership… The nonpolitical people just drifted away. At Earthwork we were grappling with the question, are we just providing food or are we trying to change the structure of this system that makes food inaccessible and unhealthy for everybody? We were at the center of one of the largest food production areas in the world.”(38)

On April 4, 1976, an All-Collective conference, with seventy-five workers attending, discussed setting up a system-wide decision-making body and more economic unification. The day began with a presentation by Margie Keller of People’s Bakery and Stuart Fishman of Veritable Vegetable on the “State of the Food System.”(39) They discussed the lack of a clear method of decision-making, which resulted in serious problems when groups made unilateral decisions that affected the entire system, such as priorities for funding a new store, or if a new production unit should form, or how the Food System should relate to co-op controversies in other parts of the country, like one that was taking place at that time in Minneapolis. They discussed unequal economic development: some groups were generating large financial surpluses, while others couldn’t pay living wages. They stressed the lack of system-wide organizing on solidarity issues such as supporting farm worker struggles and food-stamp counseling. Another problem was that they had no single resource on legal questions, and no means of pooling bookkeeping skills. Two contrasting structural proposals were made, one by Mark Ritchie and Allison of Red Star Cheese and other by Roger and Janet of the Common Operating Warehouse. Red Star asserted that “Political unity would be more likely when a stronger material basis for working together existed.”(40) The Warehouse reversed that equation and asserted that more economic unity would follow greater political unity.

Red Star presented a “model for economic merger” among groups, which would change PFS into a “unified food production and distribution collective.” They proposed a decision-making structure in which the “work teams”—the collectives—would each send two representatives to a “representative body,” which would have certain powers delegated to it by the “all-worker assembly,” which would be the overall decision-making body. The work teams would have day-to-day decision-making power each in its own area.

In contrast, the Warehouse proposed that the Food System use “democratic centralism” as its decision-making process. They explained, “In a democratic centralist system, representatives would be elected from each participating collective. The collectives should recall these representatives if they weren’t satisfied with them.”(41) They criticized the previous year’s “loosely organized and voluntary all-co-op meeting” for having “bogged down in indecisiveness and finally collapsed.” In SFCW’s proposal basic decisions in the Food System would be made in a “committee comprised of representatives democratically elected from each participating collective. Each representative is subject to recall from his/her collective, and the committee as a whole is subject to the criticism from the collective, [but] once a policy has been determined by the committee and discussed fully and accepted by the food system, no individual or collective has the right to undermine that policy.”

The Red Star merger proposal claimed that “present divisions with their resulting material inequalities are not a real progression away from the established economic structure where workers are pitted against one another by trade or material competition.” Red Star called for making immediate changes in work relations and economics, reorganizing the economics and daily life of Food System members, with a common wage fund, combined accounting, and provisions for childcare.(42)

The conference then broke down into small discussion groups, each with workers from different collectives. After discussion of the “merger model” and the “democratic centralism proposal,” each group chose representatives who made statements to the reconvened assembly, followed by a general discussion.

The assembly then decided to create a democratically elected body “as a first step toward unifying the Food System both politically and economically.” Each co-op store and support collective would elect two representatives who would meet in a body “with the initial basis of unity being the development of a mass base for socialism.”(43) They made no attempt to try to define socialism. The Representative Body’s first agenda would be: 1. Create a proposal for decision-making. 2. Decide what groups are to be represented in the elected body. 3. Discuss economic centralism, and in particular the creation of a central fund. 4. Establish a mechanism for mass educational forums for all workers in the Food System.

This simple formula of “the initial basis of unity being the development of a mass base for socialism” contrasts sharply to the complex twelve Criteria for belonging to the Food System promulgated by the meeting of the previous September.


29. Storefront Extension, April 14, 1975, 16.
30. Ibid. May 28, 1975, 13.
31. Ibid.
32. Interview with David Loeb, recorded May 3, 2011.
33. Rainbow Grocery Cooperative, “History.”
34. Interview with Nina Saltman, recorded June 20, 2011.
35. Older, “Peoples Food System,” 39-40.
36. Storefront Extension 5, September 8, 1975, 6-9.
37. Older, “People’s Food System,” 40.
38. Interview with Paul Kivel, recorded July 11, 2011.
39. Turnover 12, May-June 1976, 3-6.
40. Ibid., 4.
41. The two models reflect the classical anarchist/Marxist split in progressive and revolutionary politics dating back to the 1860s. Democratic centralism, however, did not come from Marx, but was devised by Lenin in 1904 (as described in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back). The anarchist structural approach is based on egalitarian and voluntary association, with unhierarchical power always retained by the individual or small group. Democratic centralism in contrast is the hierarchical structure used by Communist parties around the world, invented by Lenin when the tsar ruled Russia with an iron fist and the Bolshevik Party was illegal and conspiratorial. It is based on a set of organizational principles: “the Party must be organized on the principle of centralism, having one set of rules and uniform Party discipline, one leading organ, the Party Congress, and in intervals between congresses, the Central Committee of the Party; the minority must submit to the majority, the various organizations must submit to the centre, and the lower organizations to the higher organizations” [History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, (San Francisco: Proletarian Publishers, 1939), 49]. Lenin, ever the pragmatist, considered that under conspiratorial conditions the Party could not actually hold democratic elections for representatives to the Party Congresses, so the centralist factor had to temporarily predominate until tsardom was overthrown. When the Party could become open and legal, the Party organizations would be built on the principles of democratic elections. However, in practice, the Party Congresses never became more than rubber stamps, and the actual structure of democratic centralist organizations always remained highly centralized and disciplined.
42. Common Ground: Newsletter of the West Coast Cooperative and Collective Food Workers 3, April 1976, 14-15.

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