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Celebrating 50 years of Minnesota’s unique grocery activism, co-op history

Window display, customer scale, and bulk bins at Saint Anthony Park Foods, March 1972.

Window display, customer scale, and bulk bins at Saint Anthony Park Foods, March 1972. Mary Lee Shettehaughe/Minnesota Daily

After living in St. Paul for two decades and moving to Tucson last fall, Bill Lewis and his wife, Deb, returned for a visit to the Twin Cities and saw its food market landscape with fresh eyes.

“Tucson is a city with 500,000 people, but it only has one co-op,” Lewis said. “And it’s a small one, without much variety or selection.” Though they’ve found local farmers markets to be a source for some items, the bulk of their shopping reluctantly takes place at one of three Whole Foods scattered across the city.

In Minnesota, and especially within the Twin Cities, it is easy to take our vast constellation of food co-ops for granted. The Cooperative Grocers network lists more than 50 in our state, with more than a dozen in the metro area. That not only leads the nation, it’s more than twice as many as you’ll find in all of California—a state with a progressive reputation, twice our landmass, and six times our population. (Wisconsin, Washington, and New York round out the top four states with the most co-ops, where more than one-third of the nation’s co-ops can be found.) Minnesota has more cooperatives than the bottom 25 states combined.

Despite their strong presence in our largest cities, this is not strictly an urban phenomenon. One can find co-ops throughout Minnesota, from Grand Forks to Grand Marais, from Ortonville to Stillwater, from Windom to Winona. And most of them promote themselves as purveyors of local, natural, and organic food.

This is not a recent development, of course. The 1970s was witness to a tremendous amount of organizational zeal on the part of countercultural activists promoting a new ecological consciousness, participatory democracy, and sustainable local economies. One of their legacies became creating a long-lasting institutional framework for their ideologies and ideals: the co-op.

Throughout the next decade many co-ops will celebrate golden anniversaries, marking more than half a century of sorting produce, scooping dry goods from bulk bins, and asking patrons, “Are you a member?”

For most of these stores, memories of their humble beginnings have become part of historical folklore. Memberships were once measured in the dozens; Mississippi Market now boasts more than 19,000 members, and Lakewinds has more than 24,000. Shares were often sold for three or five dollars, but the contemporary one-time fee for membership hovers around $100. For most co-ops in our era, the monthly volunteer commitments—with many shifts spent on the cheese-cutting table or sweeping out coolers—have completely disappeared.

At Winona’s Famine Foods—now the Bluff Country Co-op—local lore tells of an after-hours key kept at the local police station, and members paying for their wares by putting money in a cash box buried in the peanut barrel. Such stories are often shared with a hint of nostalgia, a longing for a more innocent time that has slipped away.

The strong growth of cooperative enterprises didn’t take place in Minnesota by chance. The unique social fabric of this state first promoted their formation, then allowed them to survive and thrive even after most of the original founders had moved on with their lives, which has given us places like The Wedge + Linden Hills, Seward Community Co-op, and Hampden Park Co-op.

Cooperatives made an impact in our state long before the Age of Aquarius began to dawn, though, and well before J. I. Rodale started promoting organic food in the 1940s. In 1870, Minnesota was among the first states in the nation to adopt legislation recognizing and regulating such business ventures. These early agricultural cooperatives formed to help individual farmers negotiate with larger for-profit corporations. Rural communities formed consumer cooperatives to address a variety of free-market deficiencies, ensuring that goods could be purchased and services could be provided at fair prices.

In the 1970s, however, this “new wave” of cooperative ventures created a lasting mark on our natural foods landscape by adhering to two longstanding principles of cooperative management. The first is “cooperation among cooperatives.” While most of the early stores were interested in selling the same type of product—natural, unadulterated food with minimal packaging and (if possible) grown locally and organically—these were not easy items to procure. Organic food didn’t yet exist as a commodity, and the term “organic” itself had no regulatory meaning until Oregon passed a state statute defining it in 1973.

Unnamed shopper in front of “This store is growing organically” poster at Saint Anthony Park Foods, March 1972.

Unnamed shopper in front of “This store is growing organically” poster at Saint Anthony Park Foods, March 1972. Mary Lee Shettehaughe/Minnesota Daily

In order to sell these unconventional foods, the cooperatives banded together to create distributing organizations—not just in the Twin Cities, but also in Duluth and Winona. Following the resolution of the now-infamous “Co-op Wars” of 1975-76, these stores created the All Cooperating Assembly (ACA), a quasi-federation of stores, which allowed them to remain independent while supporting each other’s goals and missions.

The second principle embraced by ’70s cooperators involves education. As one of the first paid staff members of the ACA, Kris Olsen traveled tirelessly across the state to help even more cooperatives form in the second half of the 1970s. Cooperatives sought to educate both their members and those who had yet to join up, spreading the word not just about local, natural, and organic foodsheds but also about economic alternatives to the capitalist marketplace.

In conjunction, these principles helped create the amazing array of natural food co-ops that help define our state. Cooperatives stem from and support local communities. By providing opportunities for participatory democracy within hyper-local communities, co-ops operate a market without attempting to maximize profit at any cost. They support local foodsheds, and they return excess revenue to their members. Cooperatives offer both an alternative product (however mainstream it has thankfully become) and a different way of conducting business.

As we enter the next half-century of co-ops in Minnesota, many in our midst lament the passing of those golden years. It is easy to critique the growing professionalization of the cooperative, longing for the days when the Seward Cooop (spelled as such at the time) was a small corner store where everybody knew everybody else’s business. Today’s cooperative field still has many of those types of stores (the Hampden Park Co-op comes to mind, along with Spiral Natural Foods in Hastings), as well as the multimillion-dollar ventures where a members-only meeting would have to take place in the Target Center. But considering alternative realities in our country—just one co-op in Tucson, and none in all of Arkansas—we’re pretty lucky to have inherited such a vibrant community of cooperators who care so much about the food we love and labor to keep them around for the next generation.

Craig Upright is an associate professor of sociology at Winona State University and a member of the Hampden Park Co-op. Look for his forthcoming book Grocery Activism: The Radical History of Food Cooperatives in Minnesota (University of Minnesota Press) due out in April. See groceryactivism.com for more details.