Episode 1: Back to the Food Co-op

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We’re excited to announce that Equal Exchange has a new storytelling podcast, The Stories Behind Our Food! Here’s the first episode.

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Episode Transcript

Danielle:0:17I’m here to introduce the new Equal Exchange podcast, The Stories Behind Our Food. My name is Danielle Robidoux and I’m here with my co-host Kate Chess.


Danielle:0:29I’m also here with Susan Sklar, who’s been a worker owner, at Equal Exchange this year for 15 years.


Danielle:0:34And she will be talking about her personal experience with the cooperative movement from when she grew up, all the way to now

Kate:0:47— focusing on the groovy seventies!

Susan:0:49Indeed, indeed.

Kate:0:54All right. Susan, where did you grow up? Where and when? And what was your experience of food?

Susan:1:00I grew up in a very, kind of conformist time when it, when it comes to food, when it came to food and I grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a pretty conservative area. And in my city, the ethnic food consisted of Italian food and Chinese food at the local Chinese restaurant that was pretty, pretty bad. I had had the floppy chow mein and all that stuff. So food was, it was very, a rigid that world. And in addition to that, my mom really didn’t love to cook. So, you know, she would make frozen vegetables, frozen peas and carrots. We had iceberg lettuce salad with Russian dressing and all of that stuff. So when I went to college I started at University of Pittsburgh in 1972 and at that time I met someone who was a boyfriend who was older than I was and who introduced me to the wonderful world of food co ops. And it was totally revolutionary for me. I did not know about things like brown rice granola. I had heard about those things, but I was a pretty mainstream kind of eater and I’m again, and I didn’t cook very much at all. So that was, those were my origins. Yeah.

Kate:2:57What was going to the food co op like to a grocery store of the time?

Susan:3:01Oh, it was like night and day. It was totally different. The whole shopping experience was, you know, these kind of gleaming aisles full of boxes and cans. I mean, we still have that today, but there really were not that many fresh vegetables or there were no natural foods back then. So, it was pretty sterile I would say, and I hardly ever went to the supermarket Spec then. So, when I went to this co-op in Pittsburgh for the first time, it was magical because it was really like going back in time, it was old fashioned looking within a storefront and had a wooden floors and all kinds of foods that I had never seen before. There was arrowroot powder in little bags. There was burdock root, there was fresh ginger. It was crazy. I just had never really encountered foods like this before, so it really rocked my world in terms of the types of food that were out there. And I also began to meet different types of people who were very, very interested in where food came from. And were interested in small farmers, you know, and local farmers — things I had hardly ever thought about. I think the only time I had ever thought about those things was when I — there was a big farmer’s market in the summer in Scranton and I used to go once a year with my mother and see all the fresh peppers and, you know, various types of eggplants and various types of vegetables and would get very excited by that, that, but that was once a year. So here was a store that was really focused on food. People were participating, there were all these new kinds of foods. There was all this, these discussions going on about whole foods and natural foods and organic foods, something that I hadn’t heard about at all. And it was really pretty riveting.

Kate:5:11How would you characterize the other people who shopped at the Co op?

Susan:5:16They were different than people I hadn’t encountered before. First of all, it definitely a lot of women, more women were involved, which, you know, usually when you would go into a supermarket or just about any type of business in those days. Men were in charge. Things have definitely changed since then. But in 1972, it was really refreshing to see a lot of women taking leadership roles. Calling meetings, running the co op,  and making decisions. So that was also revolutionary and it was eye opening for me. It really, really changed my world.

Kate:5:59You’re talking about other people taking part where there rules for this co op who could be a member who could shop there?

Susan:6:06Yeah. This was, in the old days of Co ops you had to join you how to become a member, so you paid your dues and you also had to work. So you had to bag rasins, you had to bag nuts, you have to put it. I don’t remember how many hours it was, but you really had to work there. There was no opting out and in so doing, you really got to know the other people who work there and you got to know their styles and there were definitely lots of rules about how to do things. But it was very community oriented and you know, you did have those interesting conversations with people while you were working. So,  it was very, very interesting. It was much more, it felt more participatory, more democratic, and even me as a new person who was, I’m pretty ignorant about a lot of the new foods that people were starting to eat and think about and this whole natural food movement, people cared about what I thought and that was interesting to me too, that, you know, I could be part of this and you know, there were meetings, there were all sorts of discussions about what kinds of food to bring in and it felt very, very different than the world that I had been part of in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Kate:7:30Yeah, definitely. Do you feel like there was a learning curve for you at all or like you were this person, you’d been eating iceberg lettuce and now you’re exposed to burdock root were you an immediate convert or … what was that like?

Susan:7:44No, it wasn’t an immediate convert, you know, I was 18 and there are many, many years of  conformist eating that had taken place. But,  I, I would, I started experimenting and actually, I had, I was part of the food plan at the University of Pittsburgh. That’s where I was going to school and I would go in and see all of this really, you know, institutional food and didn’t like it very much. So I started actually cooking,  at the end of my, dormitory there was one little room with a stove and I just started cooking brown rice and cooking fresh vegetables and sustaining things, eating tofu,  and actually I became a vegetarian, during those years. And so I started experimenting, but you know, when you’re going to school for the first time was the first time I was living away from home. You know, there’s all these new things hitting you, so I just didn’t have that much time to devote to planning meals and cooking and and all of that and working at the food co op. But it happened gradually, but it really, you know, there was a seed planted and it really started growing from that point and it really, it really changed who I was. So it’s very, very important for me.

Kate:9:09Were the work shifts you talked about always fun or where are they ever kind of a drag? Was there any drama? You’re describing a perfect utopia!

Susan:9:17It was no, no, it was, it was not utopia and there were, there were still people with disagreements and different ways of doing things, but it was just nice to be able to talk to people openly and to for, for there not to be as much of a hierarchy as I saw in other places.  I remember a conversation which I thought, which I still think back to, which was pretty humorous, which was a group of — there was a meeting called to talk about whether we should thank people who shopped at the co op. So when somebody, if you were a cashier and you were taking a turn as a cashier rather than bagging something, should you actually thank the person who shop there because it was their co op too and why should you be thanking them for shopping at the co op? So we had a very earnest, serious conversation. Everybody was really very, very intense about this, talking about whether to thank someone when they shopped and they know they were checking out at the co op. So I think at the time I was definitely, I don’t know if I was smiling during the meeting, but I was smiling to myself because I thought, wow, this is intense.

Kate:10:36What was the role of the consumer? This cooperative — you’re talking about people, they don’t need to be thanked because they have ownership too. Can you talk about that?

Susan:10:46Yeah.  I mean you couldn’t buy natural foods, organic foods anywhere at the time in the seventies. There were some small natural food stores opening up that were, they were called health food stores, but really if you wanted to start thinking about and start using this kind of food, you had to go to a coffee shop, which is what made them so, interesting at the time. And so people would come and they would be looking for certain things, you know, they, maybe they were just becoming vegetarians and they were looking for non meat alternatives and they would ask for things. And there were, there was a bulletin board and so you could put up what you were looking for and you could ask for the people who were ordering things to order certain types of foods. I mean, this is all something that now we’re more used to at this point, but back then it was, it was quite different.

Kate:11:40Yeah, it’s interesting. My experience at co ops today is that not everyone who shops at them as necessarily an owner or a member. So I think of the person ringing people up and the customer is being a different category. But you’re saying literally every single person who shopped there was also a member. Is that correct?

Susan:12:00At that time? That was true. And I think today there’s a mixture. I mean, I think most co ops who have gone the way of you can just pay your dues. You don’t have to work. And because people are so busy and people don’t, don’t participate directly with work shifts. But,  there was something very, very nice about that. And there was a deeper connection between people and their food and people participating in this store. And people thinking more about farmers and people coming up with suggestions about where to get food. And that again, that was very democratic because people could make different kinds of choices and could influence the whole shopping scene.

Danielle:12:57Susan, can you talk a little bit more about the culture of democracy within the cooperative and was there a voting structure? Did people get voted in as a consumer, as a part of the cooperative or…?

Susan:13:09No, there was, there was no — there was a voting in, because it was, again, it was very open. It was inclusive. So if you were in the community and you wanted to be part of this endeavor, you could be part of it. So yes, there were definitely meetings, meetings about how long to work and when to work and scheduling. And there were definitely, you know, managers, when people who coordinated different things, but it, yeah, people were involved, they were welcomed in and they didn’t have to be voted in.

Danielle:13:57What are your thoughts on kind of the evolution of that from your experience in your food cooperative and kind of the experiences that are typical of someone who is part of a consumer cooperative now? And what are your thoughts on that?

Susan:14:14Yeah, I mean, again, we’re all so busy. We’re running around, you know, we’re texting and we’re doing so many — trying to do so many different things and we’re commuting and, there’s not a lot of time. So people have opted out of that direct participation and, I think there’s, there’s something that’s lost with that. It becomes much more of a,  just your basic shopping experience. So when I moved to Providence, like over 20 years ago, I guess the last food co ops, and this is Providence, Rhode Island, had they had, they had just ended and so we were stuck shopping as you know, regular old supermarkets. It was really hard to get natural foods and I, I’m, I’m no longer a vegetarian, but it turns out my daughter is now a vegetarian and it was hard to get those special foods that she, she liked to eat and then also that we’d like to eat. So you know, it was hard to find those foods and we were actually quite pleased when — at least I was — when Whole Foods moved into the area and it was like eight blocks from our house because it was very, very convenient to go there.

Kate:15:35When was this?

Susan:15:35That Whole Foods moved in, I would say probably about 10 years ago. You know, so then you could get all the specialty seitan and all the, you know —

Kate:15:47Hail seitan!

Susan:15:49Yep. All the specialty items, and nuts, that you were looking for and all the frozen natural foods, you know, all that stuff. So all that was all. That was great. But it didn’t really replace a food co op because it was more like a big, you know, grocery store. I can, I guess the main thing that was, I mean, in addition to having natural foods and organic foods, the main thing that was really different is as soon as you walked through the door, you were hit with the big fruit and Veggie section, you know, all those beautiful stacked fruits and veggies. So that was, that was very nice. But, you know, it’s expensive shopping there. And then over the years I began to notice that Whole Foods was replacing a lot of the brands and the smaller brands with their own brand, the 365 brand and they were working with economy of scale and just producing these cheaper products that actually shut other people out. So that was distressing. And  I think for me, you know, I turned a corner when Amazon bought Whole Foods just recently and it really started to have a much more corporate feel and for me it feels like Amazon is taking over the world and that people are not going to have that direct connection with their food the way they used to in co-ops. But the good news is that for about 10 years, people in Providence have been working on putting together a new co op, a new food co op, and, and after many years and after thinking that it was never going to happen,  it’s actually opening up this November, so I’m very about that.  I became an investor, and as soon as they open up in November, I am totally leaving Amazon-Whole Foods and switching over to, to the new co op. So I’m very, very happy to be getting back to my roots.

Kate:18:08Yeah, that’s good news. Should I talk about cost, now just a little bit? I know Whole Foods people call it Whole Paycheck. It’s got this reputation as this elite, expensive store, which it deserves. A lot of things are priced high there. But people — that reputation carries over to the co ops that exists today, I think. I feel like a lot of folks think of co ops as elite and expensive. Was that your experience at this co op and Pittsburgh?

Susan:18:34No, I mean it was just the opposite actually. I think one of the reasons that food co ops were formed was to cut down on expenses and encourage people to buy things in bulk, actually cut down on packaging, you know, to, you know, for environmental reasons. People came with their jars and their cloth bags to carry things home in a, you were encouraged not to use paper bags or not to use plastic but grocery bags. So, it was something very, economic about shopping at co-ops. I think that some of the cops today have to jack their prices up and that’s unfortunate. I really don’t know what it’s gonna look like at the this new co op. But yeah, they kind of have, generated this image of elitism and I think that’s really not how they started. They were really a store for, for people. They were like buying clubs in the beginning and  so I think there’s some part of the population that is moving back towards buying clubs,  and trying to buy things more economically and trying to make choices about purchasing organic food and local food. And I think that partly comes from a food consolidation that’s going on out there. There’s, all of these large corporations that are buying up smaller brands and changing the ingredients, eliminating them, jacking up the prices again. So I think it’s interesting. I feel like we’re moving back to the time of people thinking about these issues again, from an environmental point of view and from an economical point of view and even from a community point of view and trying to get more of a sense of connection with other people.

Danielle:20:37What’s been your involvement in the new food cooperative in Providence and what kind of structure are they taking on? Is it that you buy into the providence cooperative and do you have to put in the hours or work at all to be a part of it or…?

Susan:20:53So because I’m one of those extremely busy people that commutes to work and actually work at Equal Exchange, which is a cooperative. And I’m super busy. I have not. And also I was also one of the people who lost hope that the cop was actually going to be built there because it takes so long. I haven’t been that involved. I was approached. I actually called them and told them I wanted more information. Then I was approached and asked to be an investor and I became one and actually somebody here at Equal Exchange who works here is on the board and so I keep asking that person what’s going on for updates, but I am not really as informed as I should be. However, I’m going to get involved! Much more involved as soon as I can switch over and there’s a place for me to buy food and I can start planning on what I’m going to buy and start stocking up. I will know more. But right now I don’t know that know that much.

Kate:21:48That’s fair. Yeah. I think it’s interesting. I’ve heard that the Park Slope Food Co op in New York still requires members to work and that’s become less common. All members at Park Slope have to work and that itself seems to me sort of democratic because whether you’re an investment banker or a, you know, a dog walker, you have to put it in the same hours, your time, even though you may feel like your time is more valuable than someone else’s, you have to put in x hours per week in order to maintain your membership at the Co op.

Susan:22:22Yeah. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I, I do feel like there are people who have incredible time constraints on them. And they shouldn’t be allowed to maybe pay a, a fee, a big fee and not have to work directly. I think that might shut a lot of people out, particularly people with families and with, with young children.

Kate:22:46Right. In fact, low-income people, people working multiple jobs maybe don’t have time to ever go to the co op.

Susan:22:52Exactly. Exactly. So I think there is, but then again, if you’re low income, you’re not going to be able to pay a big fee to become a member of the co op. So, I mean, that might argue for some sort of sliding scale, membership as well, and that’s something if you’re part of the Co op you can talk about with other people and you can advocate for it because there’s room for people to talk to each other, which is very much the point. Yeah. So, you know, it’s, it’s no accident that I moved from the world of food co ops, to housing co ops. I lived in houses over the years and participated in meetings and shared the cooking. And then,  I ended up working at Equal Exchange, which is a cooperative and we meet and we vote on things like change of location, change of production, we vote new members in. We have a much less hierarchical style here. And that’s part of who I am. It’s actually an essential part of who I am. And it all started with the Semple Street food co op in Pittsburgh.

Kate:24:06Do you think that’s a personality thing or do you think that you developed a set of skills or a set of interests because of this?

Susan:24:15I think I was influenced by the Co op movement because I came from a pretty, I came from a nuclear family, Jewish American nuclear family, pretty standard, pretty top down now with my father being the picture and all of that. And my mother being the cook, she cooked every meal and no, this really influenced me a lot. I mean, you could also say that it was part of the seventies too. There was a whole alternative lifestyle being developed. People were changing, people were acting different, people were exploring different ways of interacting and being democratic and I’m buying things and eating their food and, and, you know, politics. So I think I was influenced by everything that was going on in the seventies and I think the food co ops, we’re part of that. And it was just a different way of interacting with people and the world. And after living in the nuclear family for 18 years, I was ready for that. I really, really liked it. I have to say probably to the feminist movement was part of that as well because I was pretty traditional. Good little girl. And so it just allowed me to branch out more, do more things, take more leadership roles, and have more fun.

Kate:25:41Is the world moving in that direction in your opinion since the seventies or has there been a sort of backswing? How can we get that feeling back?

Susan:25:49That’s a great question. I do think with the over corporatization of the world and you know, it’s all just living in these very tight bottom line types of structures, living with them. There is a move back to getting more of a sense of community being more directly involved. Even, you know, in, in politics with the Bernie Sanders campaign, people getting much more involved in directly engaged. It is almost a, I think a reaction and it’s really frightening when you look at all the, you know, in terms of food and frightening in many ways, but when you look at food, and you just see that there are no pen, large mega companies that own all the small brands and are controlling what we eat and how it’s sold. It doesn’t give you that warm fuzzy feeling. I think that it’s great that people are getting more involved and I’m not, I don’t think it’s everybody, but I do think there is some movement in that direction and I’m really happy about that.

Kate:27:12Thanks for taking the time to talk to us and taking us back somewhere we haven’t been. We hope that the Providence Co op, this everything you hope it will be in that you can take an active part in.

Susan:27:23Thank you very much. This. This was great. Thanks for having me.

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