Abstract: That's Capitalism, Not a Co-op: Countercultural Idealism and Business Realism in 1970s U.S. Food Co-ops

Maria McGrath


In the 1970s, dissenting young Americans bolting from what was perceived to be the unhealthy, "toxic" content of 1950s and 1960s corporate-controlled commercial foods, found refuge and like-minded community in food co-ops, or "food conspiracies." As experiments in participatory democracy, anti-capitalist countercultural business, and centers for alternative foods consumption, co-ops acted as protean clearinghouses for multiple political and cultural concerns. Members could join in hopes of creating a non-traditional business model, to support craft food production, to sustain organic farming, for the believed health benefits of unprocessed foods, or to take part in a communal project. This ideological inclusiveness attended to members' multifarious countercultural agendas, but eventually led to internal conflict as the everyday exigencies of running a business butted up against the turmoil fostered by anti-hierarchical, volunteer structures. In this paper, I examine two issues that presented the greatest challenge for food cooperatives: the implementation of co-op governance and management systems, and the politics of food. Despite these struggles, from the 1970s forward U.S. food co-ops have remained a flexible forum within which the progressive middle-class can practice conscientious consumption, alternative business, and purposeful communalism.

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