Food System—Economic Unity / Political Fragmentation

Historical Essay

by John Curl, Part Nine 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”

Cover turnover20.jpg

Turnover Issue 20, July-Aug. 1977

What goes around comes around.

The contradiction between the Food System as a federation of small businesses and as a political movement resulted in people and groups having conflicting priorities. Some thought that the core mission of the Food System was to provide good, inexpensive food and to develop and promote collectivity, while others thought that the core mission was to aid progressive and revolutionary struggles going on in the world around them. The stores and support collectives were functioning at a variety of levels of economic success. Of the support collectives, the Warehouse and Red Star were the most viable: (99) “Many false starts were made—an apple orchard and a pasta factory never got off the ground.

Left Wing Poultry was a financial failure, and Amazon Yogurt and Flour Power Mill were started, half-finished, and then ran out of money. The collectives that did make it did so with loans and grants from liberal and church foundations, through personal loans from the early activists and their friends, through the low cost of voluntary labor and with help from other collectives.”(100)

One point of view held that the collectives in the Food System should pool all their resources, so that the more struggling groups would get support from the more affluent ones. But there were obvious obstacles. The entire System was struggling, and the stronger groups were understandably reluctant to try to shoulder impossible burdens. And how could an association of autonomous groups become economically integrated without hierarchical relations? The merger tendency in the Food System was based on a collectivist ideology that was to some degree an extension of the communal movement of the 1960s. Some collectives proceeded to explore the possibilities.

Starting on May 24, 1976, six collectives—Red Star, Merry Milk, People’s Refir, Left Wing Poultry, Earthworks, and Free Spirit Printing—decided to meet “to discuss how we could work more closely.” On June 7 they issued a Statement on Merger, which included ten Points of Agreement.

Points of Agreement: We are a political collective. We have come together because we share dissatisfaction with life and work in the world around us, and a vision of a new way of living in a classless society. We share economic resources, moving toward common wages based on need. We have begun a labor exchange with the potential for working more closely in all aspects of daily life. Each work team makes its resources available to others regardless of anyone’s ability to pay. One area of active cooperation is the integration of work (trucking, warehousing, egg processing) between cheese, dairy and poultry teams. We are committed to cooperate to satisfy other needs: housing, transportation, childcare, education for all ages, laundry and other household chores, food for ourselves and friends at work and at home, medical care. Day-to-day decisions are made by work team, ultimate authority rests in the collective of all workers. Committees are formed to coordinate between work teams. We want to treat each other with respect and treat our tools and workplaces with respect. We are gathering a library of political and technical literature and organizing a study group among ourselves. We are researching the legal aspects of merger trying to find the form that best suits our needs. We are very interested in uniting with all groups in the food system and others outside it. We see the need for specific coordination among all groups distributing food. We are open to everyone who is in essential agreement with these points.(101)

This was followed by statements by three individual groups—Red Star, People’s Refir, and Free Spirit—which reflected some of the threads of the different ideologies that were circulating in the Food System. Red Star tended to be ecological and Marxist, People’s Refir collectivist and anarchist, and Free Spirit, communalist and Situationist. At their next meeting on June 21, all the collectives that decided to merge were to bring financial statements.

Meanwhile, Food System members who were deeply involved in social activism brought the entire organization together in support of a variety of political causes that were not food-related.

The first major event that PFS participated in as an organization was the People’s Bicentennial celebration on July 4, 1976, a progressive alternative to the patriotic hoopla that was going on in much of the country. It included a parade and rally in downtown San Francisco. Each collective was visited by rally organizers; impromptu task collectives were organized to raise money, to publicize the mobilization, and to provide food for the rally. Several collectives made banners to carry in the march. Literature tables were set up outside a number of stores, leaflets were placed in bread packages, and a special issue of Turnover was prepared.(102)

In the same period, other workers organized support within the Food System for elderly Asian tenants fighting eviction from the International Hotel. A phone tree was established to put Food System workers on the streets whenever the struggle required, and the Food System shared responsibility for the night watch at the International Hotel. As a result, some Food System workers came to play leading roles in the International Hotel support organization.

Food System workers were also active in a medical drive to aid Zimbabwe; in helping the South West African People’s Organization in Namibia build a print shop; in the campaign against reconsideration of the Bakke decision upholding affirmative action. Later, contingents of food workers marched in Gay Pride parades and sold food and literature at marches against unemployment and police repression.

In the spring of 1976, Earthwork: The Center For Rural Studies, a resource center with an organizational and educational focus on land and food issues, joined the Food System as a support collective. Started by Mark Ritchie and others, Earthwork’s stated purpose was to “expand awareness and understanding of the social, economic and political issues related to food and land . . . [and to] develop and strengthen cooperative efforts to organize the production and distribution of food.”(103) It was based at The Farm, at 1499 Potrero by the freeway. The Farm, later known as Crossroads Community, was organized by Bonnie Ora Sherk [and Jack Wickert] in 1974, on seven acres adjacent to highway overpasses. Sherk was an artist and described it as “a life-scale environmental and social artwork.” It eventually housed a preschool, art gallery, performance events, dances, community gatherings, domestic farm animals, and vegetable and flower gardens. It became a center where various Food System meetings and conferences were held, an alternative site to the Food Factory, the Warehouse, the back rooms of various stores, or Peoples Restaurant and Cultural Center on Valencia Street (which had been started by Akinyele Sade and Adam Raskin).

The Newsletter Collective, publishing Turnover bimonthly, set up shop at the Food Factory. Their first issues, begun in the spring of 1975 and originally called The Storefront Extension, had been simply a few stapled sheets. Now in early 1976 they changed to a saddle-stitched format. Turnover covered internal issues, but was also increasingly outwardly focused, used as an organizing tool, exposing the corporate food industry and government food policies, and promoting alternatives. In the first issues, the newsletter group was anonymous. Gradually, first names began appearing with some articles. This practice was very much in keeping with the spirit of the times, in its attempt to get away from individualism. However, certain people were putting in most of the work, and a staff collective spontaneously stabilized, “three women and three men developing and sharing our skills to publish the newsletter.”(104) In their May, 1976 issue, they noted that “We are struggling to work collectively, but we find a division of labor is necessary.” The core group stabilized at four people: Rich Tokeshi, Carol Horowitz, Pam Peirce, and Carole Grossman.

The title of the newsletter contained a wordplay: overturnoverturn. “Say Turnover and people laughingly say apple. We say turnover and think of the spring; of turning over the soil (and then, the land); of turning over the inventory (and then, the ownership); of turning over the traditions which keep us exploiting each other. We think in short, of fanshen.” William Hinton in his book Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village, explained that Mandarin word: “Literally, it means ‘to turn the body’ or ‘to turn over.’ To China’s hundreds of millions of landless and land-poor peasants it meant to stand up, to throw off the landlord yoke, to gain land, stock, implements, and houses. But it meant much more than this. It meant to enter a new world.”105 On the cover of the April 1976 issue of Turnover were the words, “We have only to act with our own hands. Then we can all fanshen.”

Free Spirit Press, the publisher of Beyond Isolation and Common Ground, newsletter of the West Coast food network, officially joined the Food System as a support collective.(106) With the Turnover Newsletter Collective, Free Spirit, and Earthwork, the Food System had three support collectives publishing literature. However, Free Spirit’s publications became increasingly critical of the Food System, and conflict between the publishing collectives grew.(107)

Free Spirit consisted of three people who worked out of a friendly commercial shop in Oakland, and lived in a commune in San Francisco, King Collins, Peter Galbraith, and Susan Crane. They had originally formed in New York City during the Columbia University anti-Vietnam war building occupations led by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1968. Calling themselves Radical Action Cooperative (RAC) at that time, they disliked SDS and considered it oppressive.(108)A small well- organized group, they staged successful interventions both at Columbia and Harvard. Peter Waring of Truckaderos and People’s Refir had been a member of RAC and was still close to Free Spirit.

Their ideological leader was Tony Verlaan, who had no direct connection with the Food System. He was a Dutch citizen who had been active in the Situationist International (SI) in Europe, particularly in the actions at Strasbourg University in France during the 1968 rebellion, and now made his living in America as a travel guide for Dutch tourists. Verlaan had actually been expelled from SI for using small communal groups such as Free Spirit to stage entrist-type interventions. The Situationists stemmed from a group of French artists, students, and intellectuals who adopted the perspective of outsiders intervening in what they called “the Society of the Spectacle” to heighten contradictions and ignite revolt. Now Verlaan’s cohorts—and Verlaan himself—were in California under a new name and staging an aggressive critique of the People’s Food System and the West Coast food network through Free Spirit publications.

Beyond Isolation was their first volley, although the underlying critique in that pamphlet was subdued. They followed it up by volunteering to publish Common Ground, the newsletter of the West Coast food network that had been forming at the various conferences. But when the newsletters came out, the network would discover that Free Spirit had made last-minute changes to include harshly critical content.(109) After the third issue the network discontinued the newsletters. Free Spirit moved on to get a foothold in a new publication, the Directory of Collectives, and continued to critique the Food System from there.(110) Later they attempted to take control of The Grapevine, a newsletter of communal/cooperative households and collectives, and were also rebuffed. According to Geoph Kozeny of the Grapevine collective, who went on to work with Communities magazine for many years: “They embraced the struggle of conflict between people as a growth process. They encouraged it. They discussed things among themselves beforehand, and at our meetings it felt like we were dealing with a bloc while the rest of us acted as individuals. Another heated issue was that we defined ourselves as an ‘open collective.’ To some of us this meant we were ‘open’ to all ideas, that we encouraged participation and feedback from anyone involved or interested in the broader community. To the advocates of internal struggle, being ‘open’ meant that anybody who wanted to be involved, could be involved. If somebody showed up at production they had to be plugged in.”(111)

Free Spirit used the Directory of Collectives to promote this ideology in the Food System. They proposed that PFS return to All Worker Assembly meetings instead of the Representative Body, and apparently wanted anybody to be able to participate, whether or not actually working in one of the Food System enterprises. At the same time as they supported economic merger of all the Food System groups, they opposed the idea that PFS was a closed system. In a dialog included in the pamphlet accompanying the first Directory (1976), they criticized the RB as “a step backward, a total hindrance in a revolutionary moment when large masses of people organize themselves and work groups take over all aspects of production.” One of their voices, Tony B, who was not a member of any food-related collective, asserted, “I resent feeling I am excluded [from the Food System] if I am not a member of a collective.” Collins agreed: “The possibility of a non-exclusive organization is seen as a threat to those who want to exclude, to maintain control over others.”(112)

Although Free Spirit’s critiques were usually geared to undercut any attempt by the Marxists and others to get more tightly organized and served to open a wedge for outsiders to enter into the organization, some of their critiques did offer insights into the Food System that leave no trace in Turnover. For example, Leon Willard of Truckaderos vented (arguably unfairly) in Common Ground, “I was at an upstairs SFCW meeting once and heard them discuss the fate of workers downstairs. When I asked why the downstairs workers were not at the meeting where they were being discussed, I was told that they were being paid too much per hour to spend that time in a meeting. Further, to include them in a meeting was an ‘ultra democratic idea’ and would only lead to confusion. Besides, they were not part of the collective. Substitute ‘management team’ for collective, and that discussion would sound identical to many I have heard in corporations.”(113)

But at the same time as the Situationists of Free Spirit were slipping around sniping at the Food System Marxists, the very existence of the System was being menaced by much more formidable forces.


99. Rae, “To Red Star Cheese,” Common Ground 3, 7.
100. Older, “Peoples Food System,” 39.
101. “Statement of Merger,” June 7, 1976.
102. Older, “Peoples Food System,” 40.
103. Yoga Journal (January 1978):10.
104. Turnover 9, January 1976, 2.
105. Turnover 11, April 1976, 2.
106. Turnover 13, July, 1976, back cover.
107. Letter to Earthwork from the Newsletter Collective; Letter to Turnover from the Directory Collective; Profits still going up. Collectivize (pamphlet to accompany Directory of Collectives 1976), (San Francisco: Collective Directory Group, 1977), 14.
108. King Collins, “From Student Life to Political Commune: The Radical Action Cooperative And The Situationist International,”
109. “Why we changed the Newsletter,” Common Ground 3, 20.
110. See also King Collins, “Reincarnation of the Rebel Spirit: What Happened to the People’s Food System?” Directory of Collectives 1980-1981, 50-53.
111. Geoph Kozeny and John Curl, “The Collective Network in the San Francisco Bay Area,” Collective Networker Newsletter 97 (June 1986). A dialog between two activists.
112. “Minutes of Directory of Collectives Meeting at Paul’s,” 15.
113. Common Ground 3,10.

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