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The activist roots of Minnesota’s food co-ops

By Tom Crann and Kathryn Styer

As some people damaged businesses and buildings on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis in the days following the police killing of George Floyd, others showed up at the Seward Community Co-Op to guard it from destruction.

Among those who came to defend the grocery store were co-op members: regular shoppers who felt an obligation to protect it.

“When they were challenged by the police, they rightfully claimed that they were owners of this business,” said Craig Upright, an associate professor of sociology at Winona State University. “Co-ops are still community-based organizations, and that, I think, is one of their longest-lasting and valuable legacies.”

Upright knows about the legacies of co-ops in the state. He’s the author of a new book, “Grocery Activism, The Radical History of Food Cooperatives in Minnesota.”

The Twin Cities metro area, as of last year, had nine cooperatively owned grocery stores. According to Upright, food co-ops started to take root in the 1960s in part to promote social change in attitudes about the food people consume.

“There were no regulatory standards for what could or could not be labeled as organic,” he said.

Part of the early activism in co-ops was sourcing food that was grown in accordance with their collective values, which often included the manner in which food should be grown.

Upright said the biggest challenge for early co-ops was identifying the farms that grew food in a way that fit their value system. Over time, co-ops proved distribution channels, marketing structures and even created reliable consumer demand for organic foods, he said. Now consumers can find organic-labeled foods in big box stores like Target and Walmart.

The ideals that made the cooperatively owned and operated grocery store so successful often made it difficult to operate. Co-op members couldn’t agree on what role food co-ops should play in the community. One group thought food co-ops should exist to provide cheap, nutritious food to co-op workers and challenge the capitalist economy.

The other wanted to “emphasize nutritional, sustainable food products with minimal processing and packaging,” he said.

That latter group won the so-called Minnesota co-op wars, which took place in the mid-1970s, Upright said.

The documentary film, “Radical Roots”, which is set to be released this year, dives deep into this clash. The film also digs into the tumultuous backdrop for the divide, including the Vietnam War and issues around race, gender and class, especially when it came to ownership.

Tensions around food, race, gender and class still exist today.

And access to healthy nutritious food is still hard for people who live in food deserts, which are census tracts with high rates of poverty and no grocery stores within a mile of most residents.

But research shows that co-op grocery stores can go a long way in revitalizing food deserts. Catherine Brinkley, assistant professor of community and regional development, found that co-ops were most likely to take root and thrive in communities labeled as food deserts when compared with other types of markets.

In an article, Brinkley credits co-op success to being “rooted in their communities through customer ownership, democratic governance and shared social values” — the very things that have helped Minnesota co-ops flourish to date.