Weaver Street Market in North Carolina are by far the biggest consumer food co-op I’ve visited, with a total of three natural grocery stores plus a large Food House where they bake, cook and process fresh foods for all three locations, plus supply to a handful of other local co-ops. Having opened with just one store in 1988, the co-op has expanded steadily, and has ambitious plans to open three more in the area within the next few years.
Co-ops & the Civil Rights movement
A big part of my co-op tour is to learn from co-operatives that are building on commercial success to explore ways they can strengthen their local food systems and the co-operative economy, beyond simply selling good food. Toronto provided a multitude of inspiring ideas, from a food security programme bringing together a co-op and community farm, another co-op’s grant fund for scaling up organic production, and a network of co-operatives working together for food sovereignty.
As you might imagine, there is a LOT of both co-operative and food justice activity going on in the Bay Area, as evidenced by my second week here. It’s included the Western USA Worker Co-op Conference, meeting the wonderful Mandela Foods Co-operative, participating in a discussion on the history and resonance of African American co-ops, learning about the Worker Co-op Academy and attending a ‘Food First’ event on community food access.
I’ve been wanting to visit Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco for over ten years, ever since a friend visited and described it as a ‘huge, huge version of Unicorn’, a weird concept to me at the time given that Unicorn is itself unusually large compared with the UK’s fairly tiny wholefood shop norm!
The Bay Area of northern California is home to five worker co-op bakeries, all collectively managed, all paying an equal (living) wage, all serving up amazing quality bread, pizza, cakes and cookies. And it's no accident. They all feature, somewhere in their name, the word Arizmendi.
Whilst I was in Portland I was determined to participate in a session with the Portland Fruit Tree Project. Being involved in a similar volunteer-run fruit harvesting project in Manchester, I'd heard about them from afar, and my four days in the city happily co-incided with a Saturday fig harvest.
My next stop has been Portland, where amongst others I spent an afternoon with Peoples Food Co-op, a consumer-owned co-op run by a 30 member workers collective. I was lucky enough to be able to observe a collective meeting, which I’ve found adds another good few layers of understanding to how an organisation functions (on top of just talking to someone and having a look around). I was really grateful for the co-op culture of solidarity – in what other type of organisation would that level of transparency be so normal - probably not many!
So I had a couple of weeks off the co-op trail, in Montana, where I started to get a glimpse of the impact of wildfires experienced by the Western US. This is one of the worst years ever in terms of number and severity of forest fires, and like the extreme temperature records, it's a year-on-year pattern heading in the wrong direction. I spent my first couple of days in the state struggling to see the mountains I'd heard so much about, the smoke from hundreds of fires hanging in every valley like a thick, choking fog.