In this Food-Stuff, Erica Zurawski argues that the 2017 documentary, FOOD COOP, depoliticizes the stakes of food justice through its acute focus on the everyday logistics of one longstanding Coop in Brooklyn.
Cheaper, fresher, better food. This goal in-and-of-itself inspired a group of friends in New York to initiate an experiment in alternative grocery modeling, eventually forming the Park Slope Food Coop in 1973. The Park Slope Food Coop has withstood remarkable growth over the past forty-five years, now boasting 16,000 members with plans to open a second location. The endurance of this place through shifting sociopolitical landscapes and evolving food movements is made even more fascinating considering the simplicity of its origins and the way in which those original ethics have persisted and changed over time.
Intrigued by the phenomenon that is the Park Slope Food Coop, director Tom Boothe explores the functionality and experience of the Coop in his 2017 documentary, FOOD COOP. With minimal embellishment and scarcely any narrational thread, this film captures the situated experiences of the Park Slope Food Coop by its members, chronicling what makes this particular grocery store tick, from product sourcing to gum scraping. Even in showcasing the unremarkable tasks that keep the Coop running, FOOD COOP still manages to inspire contemplation around the relationship between the Coop’s original goals and its modern ethos, begging the question: is it still just about cheaper, fresher, better food?
As FOOD COOP demonstrates, for some members, cheaper, fresher, better food is enough to justify the mandatory two-hour and forty-five-minute work shift every four weeks. For others, the Coop’s alternative grocery model provides additional welcome relief from modern superfood conglomerates and the incessant marketing and consumerism that dominate grocery and supermarket scenes. For others still, the Coop represents an opportunity to suture food and politics towards the potential to change the world. Through casual interviews and candid remarks, FOOD COOP sheds light on the diversity of rationales that motivate individuals to become members. In spite of this diversity, all members carry the same work expectations. These can entail just about anything needed to run a grocery store: stocking produce, cleaning drains, handling early-morning deliveries, working in coolers and freezers, breaking down cardboard boxes, sorting through the lost and found, managing work shifts. At the end of the day, the trade-off is simple: work thirteen shifts a year and you have your bounty of deeply discounted, fresh, quality groceries.
As FOOD COOP’s interview with two co-founders confirms, it was this simple at the onset: a constellation of unique aspirations coming together to acquire cheaper, better food. Reflecting on the original ethos, co-founder Joe Holtz explains, “…we knew once we started learning what the wholesale price was, of things, we knew that, gee, we could really save money on food, on good food, and avoiding the bad food.” As Holtz admits, he did not “think of it that intellectually” and was unaware that “the biggest expense of running a supermarket is paid labor,” a point made even more clear by the lack of mandatory member work requirements when the Coop opened in 1973. In contrast to Holtz, Donnie Rotkin, another Park Slope Food Coop co-founder, articulated an explicitly anti-capitalist sentiment behind the Coop: “…this [Coop] was part of the late ’60s, early ’70s rise of feminism and a strong anti-war movement, and anti-capitalist movement. It had many different aspects to it but clearly was against what was called at that point monopoly capital.” Unlike Holtz, Rotkin attributes the founding of the Coop to an “avowedly anti-capitalist” ethos intentionally against the “idea of profit going somewhere else and being extracted from our surplus buying and/or labor.” Even considering the divergence between Holtz and Rotkin’s respective initial positions, it is intriguing to note what is missing from the co-founders’ reflections regarding why they started the Coop: specifically, any mention of changing the world or creating a universal alternative food model.
I found the omission of this sentiment to be profound in its absence and a point worth noting. Based on the interviews that Boothe centers in FOOD COOP, the purpose of the Coop was to provide individuals with cheaper, better food through a consumption-based solution. Forty-five years and 16,000 members later, what was originally a small group of roommates seeking to build an alternative food model has blossomed into a thriving and ever-growing cooperative grocery. So, while the explicit objective at the outset was not to change the world, the resulting growth and popularity of the Coop has clearly made waves beyond its small New York borough. For this reason, it is worth interrogating what exactly has made the Coop so prolific: the common values, the work-benefit trade-off, or the well-regimented model that allows it to work like a well-oiled machine? This latter path is the direction that Boothe’s documentary takes, exploring how this experiment turned into an enduring success by following the daily innerworkings, chronicling the quirks and intricacies. FOOD COOP largely presents as an exposé of the humdrum that keeps the Park Slope Food Coop working. The long and unexciting clips of working at the Coop compose the majority of the documentary, making enduring the full documentary a chore in and of itself. However, the mundane and tedious aesthetic of FOOD COOP tangibly demonstrates how this experiment turned into an enduring success through the situated experiences of Park Slope Food Coop members.
At first, Boothe’s approach in centering the monotony that goes into supporting a thriving cooperative grocery store seems just that: monotonous. Unembellished, devoid of any background music or narration, the footage is minimalist and to the point. Looking deeper into Boothe’s intention behind filming FOOD COOP and his relationship to the Park Slope Food Coop, this otherwise curious emphasis becomes poignant. As Boothe explains in an interview on the film’s French website, he was drawn to the “phenomenon” of the Coop. Intrigued by the Coop’s atmosphere and the model to make good, quality food more affordable, Boothe began researching the Park Slope Food Coop both for his documentary project but also in order to start a similar alternative grocery in Paris, France. Since the initiation of his project, Boothe has since been involved in the opening of La Louve (The Wolf), a cooperative grocery store founded in the vision of and with help from the Park Slope Food Coop. With the influence of the Coop now extending across continents, the slippage between the founders’ ethos to access better, cheaper, food and Boothe’s desire to reproduce the model usher in questions regarding the consequences of attempts to universalize and reproduce alternative food models.
Frankly, I wished that Boothe’s documentary spent less time on the minutiae of running the Coop and more time on the politics of the Coop: its endurance in the face of changing socioeconomic climates and its treatment in the media as well as within its own walls. These relationships and questions would have at least begun to situate the Coop and would have attended partly to the widespread critique of universalizing discourses within alternative food efforts and the demand for reflexivity and accessibility in alternative food organizing. Narrowing the subject matter of the documentary to the practical demands of running a cooperative grocery does not capture these nuances and risks depoliticizing an unavoidably political topic. Further still, these questions demonstrate the tension between the Coop’s 1973 goal to access cheap, good food and its persistence in spite of more sophisticated and pointed scrutiny from modern alternative food movements. Was the point, when the Coop was formed, to incite radical change through envisioning alternative food models, or was it just about cheaper, better food? In the same vein, has the original ethos behind the Coop changed in the forty-five years since it opened and to what end? What implications does this tension hold for the universality and reproducibility of alternative food models across time and space? And what is at stake when alternative food efforts are depoliticized and sanitized for the sake of easily recreating them elsewhere?
From a critical food studies lens, Boothe’s avoidance of the many political and social questions surrounding the Coop functions to reinscribe and reproduce the myriad assumptions and privileges inherent in the Park Slope Food Coop’s model. Pulling from a disability studies lens, in particular, demonstrates this point. To start, it is clear that the Coop is not for every body. The ability to spare nearly three hours every four weeks, the time and means to travel long distances to and from the Coop, the physical and emotional capacity to perform the labor requisite to membership, and the resources implied behind demands to “get creative” in the face of a plastic bag ban show the rampant ableism within the Coop’s model, which functions to reinscribe the exclusion of disabled persons. These types of privileges and assumptions are precisely what critical food studies have articulated as crucial points of interrogation to understand what works and what fails, who is included and who is excluded. However unintentional this may be, documentaries such as FOOD COOP that subtly introduce questions of the universal reproducibility of alternative food models need to incorporate deeper interrogations of the politics at play or otherwise risk reinscribing systems of oppression.
It is worth revisiting the point that the Coop does not purport to be and did not begin as a universal fix-all for the woes of the food system. It began in 1973, a time when questions about food sourcing and ethics were building steam. It filled a purpose as a means for a group of people to access cheaper, better food. So, what does it mean when this simple ethos has endured for so long? What exactly does it take to be successful like the Park Slope Food Coop? FOOD COOP addresses this question in part. It shows the realities of what it is to be a member of the Park Slope Food Coop in a tiny microcosm of a New York neighborhood that has managed to successfully implement an alternative grocery store for forty-five years. FOOD COOP is an example of the possibility of creating otherwise, of one solution that works for a sizable number of people in the face of advanced capitalism and corporate foodways. However, this documentary does not confront the numerous privileges and assumptions within the Coop’s model. Even if the Park Slope Food Coop and this documentary purport to simply be about cheaper, better food, this takeaway is still fraught. Even with the best intentions of extending this model to other communities, FOOD COOP risks reinscribing exclusionary and oppressive ideologies and practices through the uncritical and uninterrogated universalization of alternative food models.
Erica Zurawski is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz and has completed her Juris Doctor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, with a certificate in International Law. Her research looks to understand how situated instances of food insecurity have been constructed across time and space and how those instances are linked to ongoing projects of colonization. She focuses specifically on neighborhoods in North Denver, linking colonization and the Colorado Gold Rush to modern day environmental degradation and gentrification. She explores the situated genealogy of food justice movements in order to interrogate manifestations of power, oppression, resistance, and contestation within food movements as well as broader systemic processes. She tweets at @OnTheTableBlog.