Food Co-ops Are Subsumed by Capitalist Marketplace

Historical Essay

by John Curl, Part Twelve 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”

It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.
—Deng Xiaoping

Since their beginnings in the nineteenth century, food cooperative movements in the United States have risen and fallen in recurring waves. By their very nature, cooperative movements follow changes in the economy and demographic changes as their original members age and society changes. That recurring wave pattern is built into human society, rising, subsiding, and eventually reviving and sprouting again like an annual plant, in a new body or a new form.

A recent study by the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives provides a succinct summary of the cycle of retail food co-ops:

Consumers’ interest and participation in retail food cooperatives tends to increase in periods of social, political, and economic turmoil. Growth periods also occur when large numbers of consumers experience economic difficulties and develop an interest in ownership and control of their retail food sources, when they become concerned for food safety, and when they experience a strong desire for an ethical society. Failure of cooperatives is consistently traced to decline in member participation, lack of management skills, inadequate capitalization, strong competition, increasing concentration in food retailing, and “loss of the cooperative spirit.”(143)

In the larger picture, the “new wave” co-op/collective movement between the early 1970s and the mid-1980s followed a normal and inevitable pattern. Around 1979, there were perhaps 5,000 small “new wave” collective/co-op stores and buying clubs in the United States and Canada, probably doing about $500,000 in sales.(144) But by the early 1980s, the “new wave” movement all around the country was faltering and by 1990 had subsided. Its rise had been based on serving the countercultural community, but that community no longer existed. Cooperatives had been the primary outlet for the early natural and organic foods movement, but when larger numbers of people wanted them, supermarket chains made them (or counterfeits) a standard part of their stock. Today supermarkets and large chains have about 54 percent of the organic market, with co-ops and independents dividing the rest.(145)

Despite corporate cooptation, natural and organic foods have remained a strong niche for small retail markets. Some food co-ops achieved long-term success by carrying a wide enough variety of products and produce to successfully maintain a customer base, while remaining true to their values.

The collective/cooperative wholesale distributors of the 1970s faced similar economic forces. The pressure in the market economy to “grow or die” forced them into constant expansion. Eventually all the early distributors succumbed or were combined into larger co-ops, and eventually taken over by corporations. That was almost inevitable in this economic system. By its very nature corporate capitalism destroys all the weakest enterprises and puts enormous pressure on the survivors to place profit above all else, to “grow or die.” Finally, the system takes over and absorbs almost all of the most successful enterprises, transforming them into parts of capitalist conglomerates.

The ‘70s generation of organic farmers fared better than the wholesales in some ways, although they typically needed another source of income to survive. Some experimented with collective production, but most used co-ops primarily for marketing. Like the others, many of the more successful farms were taken over by large corporations.

Like all enterprises, some individual co-ops are able to change and thrive for long periods of time, while others lead short intense lives before they succumb and die. However, many extraordinary food cooperatives that started in the 1970s are still successful today, widely scattered in many regions of the country.

Aftermath in San Francisco

Beyond the extraordinary events that tore the Food System apart, economic forces that many in PFS were not adequately focused on, were working to undermine them. In the analysis of Nina Saltman of the Warehouse, “A lot of factors led to its demise. One was possibly outside police intervention. Another was a large focus on politics and outreach instead of good business practices being followed, and clearly businesses faltered because of things like that. People were not focused on running the businesses, that didn’t seem to be the priority.”(146) Mary Jane Evans of Veritable echoed the thought: “As far as I’m concerned, some of the fundamental cracks and the problems in the Food System had nothing to do with those outside groups. It had to do with, how does a group of people go about an endeavor of this sort? How do people work together? How do you structure doing your work, and have an integrated approach? How do you support those who supply you and those you’re selling to, and really make it a continuum and understand how you’re all in it together? We at Veritable figured it out by really concentrating on the relationship. Relationship has really carried the day for Veritable since we stepped away from the Food System.” (147)

Rainbow Grocery, which bailed out from the Food System well before disaster hit, offers an online encapsulation of some of the economic challenges they faced following the demise of the System:

[T]he natural foods business has become a competitive industry, one that strongly mimics the industrial agribusiness complex against which many of the first community food stores rebelled. Rainbow’s place in this new agribusiness is at times uncomfortable and challenging. We strive to compete with giant chains who falsely mimic our collective structure with “teams and team leaders,” although they still maintain oppressive hierarchical structures in the workplace. We are constantly forced to examine the products we buy as smaller local businesses are swallowed up by multinational corporations who may not have the same values as the original owners. With health food becoming part of our national awareness, the lines between “healthy” and “unhealthy” are not so clearly drawn. Herbal remedies are now being mass-produced and sold in pharmacy chains. . . . Soymilk can now even be found at many local corner stores. With the advent of Genetically Modified foods and the lack of government requirements when it comes to testing and labeling, we face even more challenges. And occasionally, certain government organizations decide they want to change organic standards to include practices that we abhor.(148)

Aftermath of Regional Networks

More typical than the histories of the collective/co-op food movements in San Francisco and Minneapolis in the 1970s, were the vicissitudes of the regional collective and cooperative networks in places like Santa Rosa (CA), Arcata (CA), Seattle (WA), Vancouver (BC), and Austin (TX). Their successes and failures, as a backdrop of the norm of the period, help to put the extraordinary events in San Francisco and Minneapolis into perspective.


On June 25, 1975, Country People’s Warehouse (CPW) and Santa Rosa Community Market opened for business. Within a year Country People’s Warehouse was serving ten stores, three dozen buying clubs, and several restaurants. In 1976, CPW incorporated as a nonprofit. The store was operated by volunteers from the membership. In December of 1975 the co-op members resolved to begin paying the staff when funds became adequate. In early 1976, Sunshine Produce Distribution was founded to truck organic vegetables from local growers and from the San Francisco produce market. When Truckaderos went out of business, CPW organized Morningstar trucking, a small team of all-woman truckers who made runs from San Diego and Fresno, and later from as far as British Colombia and Arizona.

Country People’s Warehouse, Community Market, Sunshine Produce, and Morningstar Trucking banded together in April 1976 under an umbrella organization, Red Clover Workers’ Brigade (RCWB), which took over CPW’s nonprofit status. The Brigade had a central accounting team, some joint management, and the potential for workers to move around as needed from one business to another. The Brigade transitioned from a co-op into a collective worker-run business and opened Red Clover Bakery in late 1976.

Over time a philosophical split developed between the warehouse and the bakery over the nonprofit status. In 1980 the bakery workers bought themselves out of the Brigade, changed their name to Alvarado Street Bakery, reincorporated as a worker cooperative, and started operating independently. Sunshine Produce and Morningstar Trucking both folded that same year. Country People’s Warehouse became an all-woman company but continued to lose money until it finally closed in 1987, leaving Santa Rosa Community Market as the only remaining enterprise in the Red Clover Brigade. It found success again at a new location. In 1997, it gave up its nonprofit status and became a mutual-benefit corporation. It continues to flourish today, with thirty-five workers. Alvarado Street Bakery, still a worker cooperative today, is now the largest organic bakery in the country, producing over 30,000 loaves a day.

Murder on the Food Train?

Almost thirty-five years have passed since the disastrous People’s Food System meeting of April 26, 1977, yet many Food System activists still remain quiet today about what happened. The Food System continues to be a very hot button. But when a generation reaches a certain age, it is critical to rethink and reevaluate, so I have tried to do that with the Food System. It is important to look at its life, its goals and missions, its conflicts and struggles. It is important to explore what it might have become if it had lived, by comparing it to the life cycles of similar organizations of its time, including the sister movement in the Twin Cities that, with uncanny parallels, suffered through the Co-op War. It is important to try to figure out what actually happened and why: to what degree was the Food System’s death due to natural causes, suicide, or murder?

We must remember that most of those involved were between twenty and thirty- five years of age, many of them deeply idealistic and devoted to societal change and social justice. Their youth was both a strength and a weakness. Many were politically naïve, as young people naturally are. Many expressed the type of pure and extreme politics that young people often express—before songs of experience force them to moderate their views—often hoping that the purity of their intentions and naïveté will protect them, as innocents sometimes seem to have a miraculous protection in the midst of peril, but sadly not always. These young people had many vulnerabilities and few defenses against the powerful and cynical forces that they challenged. A spectrum of points of view were involved. They all wanted to change the world, but some wanted to do it primarily through food politics, others primarily through personal politics and social relations, still others saw food primarily as an entry into broader social change. There were anarchists, libertarians, collectivists, cooperators, communalists, hippies, liberal Democrats, Situationists, feminists, gay activists, social reformers, revolutionaries, evolutionaries, socialists, syndicalists, communists and commonists of every description, with as many varied visions of social justice and ideas of ways to get there. All of these forces met in the People’s Food System, most tried to work together, and many often clashed. The Food System was tearing itself apart, and at times seemed almost suicidal. Yet even when they strongly disagreed, as for example over decision-making structures (Representative Body vs. All-Worker Meetings; “direct democracy” vs. “democratic centralism”), sincere positions were held on the various sides, although not always adequately thought out or informed. Almost all were struggling openly toward a shared constructive future. Some had connections with various outside political organizations, which often had agendas of their own. This was exacerbated by the widespread “underground” revolutionary activity in the Bay Area at that time, which by its very nature involved shadowy organizations that had to be accepted partially on faith, if they were to be accepted at all. And of course, there were those people in the Food System, a handful but consequential far beyond their number, whose motivations and actions were not sincere, open, or constructive.

Of the many stores and support collectives that were members of the Food System at its height, only three stores and one distributor are still in operation today. By every account, Other Avenues Food Store, Rainbow Grocery, Good Life Grocery, and Veritable Vegetable are all thriving today, and in basic ways still true to their missions. Other Avenues and Rainbow remain cooperatives today, Good Life is employee-owned after being owned by its two managers, and Veritable Vegetable is owned by a small group of women. Veritable Vegetable, the enterprise that was caught in the center of the conflict that tore the System apart, today captures many of the purest ideas and practices of the Food System at its height:

We at Veritable Vegetable are creating and fostering sustainable culture, integrating the environment, the economy, and society as sustainable systems. Sustainable systems are inherently life affirming, balancing input and output, conserving, if not augmenting, energy and resources. Veritable Vegetable has chosen to influence these areas by distributing organic produce and promoting sustainable agriculture. We are pursuing and applying participatory management systems and sound, ethical business practices. Veritable Vegetable supports diverse communities and businesses. We support co-op natural food stores and place a maximum priority on their partnership. These relationships allow us to strengthen local economies by working with community-based businesses. We have long relationships with neighborhood co-ops all over California, and in 1996 expanded our service to co-ops in Arizona, New Mexico, and recently, Southern Colorado. We maintain a 4:1 ratio in terms of salaries, highest to lowest. That means that no one working in the organization can make more than four times as much as anyone else. We share the fruits of our labor company-wide. We make special efforts to recruit women for roles traditionally held by men in a male-dominated industry. Surplus produce is donated to the San Francisco Food Bank, who then distributes it to charitable organizations serving meals to the homeless and needy in the Bay Area. Any produce that is unsuitable for the Food Bank goes to SF based compost programs. We recycle.(163)


Veritable Vegetable staff and truck.

Photo: Veritable Vegetable

In the early 1970s, when the Food System began, natural and organic foods were known only to a small group. Food in America was highly processed from seed to supermarket. Family farms were disappearing, strangled by agribusiness. Increasingly larger corporations grew, processed, distributed, and sold the dominant portion of all foods that reached American tables. Farmers markets were actually illegal in most places in California, although in San Francisco one had been grandfathered in. At the same time, the U.S. government was using “the food weapon” as a tool of foreign policy.

Today a strong resurgence of food-related movements are exploring many forms of cooperation related to food and agriculture. Food co-ops and buying clubs are back in force, along with farmer cooperatives, urban farmers’ markets, community gardens, and newer forms such as CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), crop swaps, and Food Hubs. Connected are social and solidarity enterprises, and barter networks. The Food Justice, Food Security, Local Food, and Slow Food Movements are also all closely related.

So did the movement of the 1970s fail or succeed?

Alternative cooperative food networks and systems were built in almost every region of the country in the early 1970s. The problems and issues were similar almost everywhere, and most met the same fate. The movements in the Bay Area and in the Twin Cites however were different. Although they were among the most successful, or because of it, they were both entered into by outside radical groups. Some members of those groups were sincerely working for progressive social change, but other members had different motivations. Many sincere people wound up surrendering their critical faculties to charismatic leaders and being used. To what degree was the radical rhetoric just a cover, and to what degree did the entrist groups really see the co-ops as just a cash cow?

Cooperative movements by their very nature arise and subside, based on many factors. People become interested in alternative organizations when the mainstream organizations of society are not working. Since co-ops are based on the power of people in very specific situations, when the situation changes, people tend to drift away. Sometimes those changes come about because the economy has shifted but sometimes for simple reasons such as their members getting older. Cooperative movements tend to be generational. For whatever specific reasons, the movement faded in the mid-’80s, and that was a natural phenomenon under conditions of corporate capitalism.

That FBI and police agents infiltrated into the radical groups that were working in the Food System, is indisputable... The question still remains as to whether the attacks on the co-ops were directed or incidental, whether they were targeted because of their stated radical goals or were the incidental victim of collateral damage, and attacked only because the radicals were in them. All the evidence is not yet in and may never be.

Yet, the FBI does have a documented history of targeting movements for social change, including at least one food movement. When the FBI’s COINTELPRO attacked the Black Panther Party a few years previously, they specifically targeted their social programs: “During this campaign, [Special Agent in Charge in Chicago Marlin W.] Johnson received repeated directives marked to his persona attention from J. Edgar Hoover, demanding that he instruct his COINTELPRO personnel to . . . eradicate its ’serve the people’ programs. In May and June of 1969, the Director specifically and repeatedly instructed Johnson to destroy the Panthers’ broadly acclaimed Free Breakfast for Children Program in the city.”(164)

So how do we answer the question of what caused of the demise of the San Francisco People’s Food System? Did it die by murder, suicide, or natural causes? The answer must be all three.


The following bibliographical references relate to the movement in the Bay Area and the Twin Cities. References to the rest of the topics discussed are too vast to compile here, and are referenced in the endnotes.

SF People’s Food System

Despite its almost legendary status in local underground history, the volume of printed literature about the San Francisco People’s Food System is slight. Most of the materials published during its brief life are in the newsletters Storefront Extension and Turnover. Related materials can be found in the newsletter Common Ground, which focused on the larger West Coast network, and a little in the early Directory of Collectives. Beyond those is the pamphlet Beyond Isolation, various papers, ephemera, and materials about the different enterprises. That is pretty much it. The San Francisco Chronicle had a brief article the day after the shootout (April 27, 1977), and a more extensive one in the following day’s edition. Since there were never trials, the story dropped out of sight for a year and a half, until Imilla Cabral and Bill Wallace published a four-part investigative series in the Berkeley Barb between December, 1978 and January, 1979.

In 1981, I coordinated a workshop at a conference sponsored by the InterCollective, a network of people working in collectives that included the first public discussion of the rise and fall of the Food System by someone who had been part of it, Morris Older, a baker from Uprisings Bakery. The following year. I published his talk in History of Collectivity in the San Francisco Bay Area, together with an article on the same subject by Charlie of Inner Sunset food store, and a transcript of the workshop discussion.

Meanwhile, the Berkeley neighborhood newspaper Grassroots also published Older’s narrative, along with an article about the events at the Warehouse. Bits of history of the Food System also began appearing on various websites, usually in connection with one of the enterprises that had been part of it. Jesse Drew discussed it briefly in “Call Any Vegetable, The Politics of Food in San Francisco” in Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture (1998). More recently, Pam Peirce contributed a short memoir, “A Personal History of the San Francisco People’s Food System” in Ten Years That Shook The City (2011). Until this current narrative, that remained the extent of published materials.

In 2011, I interviewed and communicated with the following people who had worked in the People’s Food System: Kathleen Fusek, Nina Saltman, Mary Jane Evans, David Loeb, Adam Raskin, Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff, Morris Older, Max Weinryb, and Paul Kivel.

Anspacher, Carolyn. “Mysterious Gun Battle’s Two Radical Victims.” San Francisco Chronicle, April 28, 1977, 2.

Cabral, Imilla and Bill Wallace. “Inside Tribal Thumb.” Berkeley Barb 28, no. 4 (November 23, 1978).
“Under Their Thumb.” Berkeley Barb 28, no. 5 (December 7, 1978).
“Showdown and Shootout.” Berkeley Barb 28, No. 6 (December 21, 1978).
“Get Those Crazy People off the Streets!” Berkeley Barb 28, no. 7 (January 4, 1979).

Charlie. “Another View of the Food System” and “Conference Workshop Discussion.” In History of Collectivity in the San Francisco Bay Area, edited by John Curl. Berkeley: Homeward Press, 1982.

Drew, Jesse. “Call Any Vegetable, The Politics of Food in San Francisco.” In Reclaiming San Francisco History, Politics, Culture, edited by James Brook, Chris Carlsson, and Nancy J. Peters. San Francisco: City Lights, 1998.

Older, Morris, “The Peoples Food System.” In History of Collectivity in the San Francisco Bay Area, edited by John Curl. Berkeley: Homeward Press, 1982.

Peirce, Pam. “A Personal History of the San Francisco People’s Food System,” Ten Years That Shook The City, ed. Chris Carlsson and Lisa Ruth Elliott (San Francisco: City Lights, 2011)


143 “Research on the Economic Impact of Cooperatives Project: Grocery Cooperatives,” University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives, Revised June 19, 2009,
144 Case and Taylor, Co-ops, Communes and Collectives, 90.
145 Organic Trade Association, “Industry Statistics and Projected Growth: 2011 Organic Industry Survey,”
146 Interview with Nina Saltman, recorded June 20, 2011.
147 Interview with Mary Jane Evans, recorded July 25, 2011.
148 Rainbow Grocery Cooperative, “History 2,”
149 Minnesota Historical Society, “North Country Co-op,”
150 Ibid., “Minnesota Food Cooperatives,”
151 Cox, Storefront Revolution,137.
152 Nate Horwitz, “And Then There Was One” Food Scoop, January 2003.
153 Alvarado Street Bakery, “About Us,”; Steven van Yoder, “California Dreaming Becomes a Reality: How Alvarado Street Bakery Went from Hippie Collective to Commercially Successful Co-op,” Ode, October 2010,; Community Market, “Store History,”
154 Peg Pearson and Jake Baker, “Seattle Workers’ Brigade: History of a Collective,” Puget Consumers’ Co-op Newsletter 54, June, 1977. Reprinted in Frank Lindenfeld and Joyce Rothschild-Whitt, Workplace Democracy and Social Change, (Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers, 1982), 284-287.
155 James Scothorn, “Old Bakery… New Co-op: A Model of the Village Commons,” Cooperative Grocer 128, January–February 2007,…new-co-op; Hope Bentley, “From hippie haven to state-of-the-art-store,” Natural Foods Merchandiser, March 1, 2007,
156 Common Ground 2, January 1976, 5.
157 Ibid., 2-3.
158 The Co-operative Learning Centre, “East End Food Co-operative,”; Galleria, “Stories of the BC Co-op Movement, Kootenay Country Store Co-operative,”; “Lardeau Valley Cooperative,”
159 “Austin Community Project: Building a Cooperative Community,” Communities Magazine 19, March, 1976, 44-47.
160 Ibid., 44.
161 “Austin, a Time of Changes,” Communities Magazine 26, May, 1977, 27.
162 Michael Owens and Dan Gillote, “Learning While Leaping: Wheatsville Food Coop’s expansion,” Co-op Grocer No.146 (Jan.–Feb. 2010).
163 Veritable Vegetable, “Our Heart,”
164 Ward Churchill, Agents of Repression, (Boston: South End Press, 1988), 68.

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