A food justice lesson from Brooklyn

Thomas Boothe’s ‘Food Coop’ is a lesson in creating socialist supermarkets

21st century capitalism: higher living costs, lower wages, poor quality of food. The problems of a failing market system are so normalised that it is hard to imagine an alternative system. This is where Thomas Boothe’s documentary Food Coop, which highlights the Park Slope Food Coop, comes in. The documentary was screened on July 24 in Montreal, as part of Société des Art Technologique’s “Cinema Urbain” series co-presented by Cinema Politica.

Park Slope is a socialist cooperative supermarket operating in Brooklyn, New York. Only members can shop from the supermarket, and to earn membership one must work two hours and 45 minutes every month. The initiative began in 1973 amidst anti-Vietnam War protests and as a response to contemporary monopoly-capitalism where a small number of businesses generate high profits by exploiting resources. The original founders of the coop started with a simple goal of serving high quality local produce to the Brooklyn community at the most affordable price. The founders developed the membership working hour model to help achieve the low price. Members who contribute their labour to the coop also become owners of the coop, which aligns the interests of both the customer and the coop. During its conception, the co-founders underestimated the cost-cutting impact of eliminating wages from expenses. The resulting effect allowed the coop to maintain a mark-up of only 20% on their products, in order to cover overhead costs. They could still under-price their products relative to other supermarkets such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Members enjoy $30,000 in annual savings by shopping from Park Slope compared to other supermarkets. Moreover, 80% of the produce are locally sourced from organic farms in upstate New York or Pennsylvania.

Boothe’s documentary looks at some of the issues that occur in a food cooperative of this size. Sometimes member-owners are reluctant to take orders from paid staff who are hired to manage member shifts. Occasionally, member committees such as the environment committee disagree with the management’s policy on plastic bags. Inter-member conflicts can also arise when members skip shifts. The coop maintains a democratic approach to solving these disputes: both parties get to present their case in a trial and randomly selected members decide on an outcome. The coop relies on members’ responsibility and accountability for smooth operation.

Other issues arise from the status of the food coop itself. The co-founders interviewed in the documentary expressed no interest in expanding their project or opening other branches in other boroughs of New York. This begs the question whether the cooperative truly is serving the ones who need it the most. New York’s poorer neighbourhoods sometimes do not even have mainstream supermarkets, let alone a cooperative, in their area. Residents are forced to shop packaged food items and junk food from convenience stores. Due to the gentrification of the area in which Park Slope currently exists, many members have to travel hours on public transit to shop here. The documentary also fails to address how this cooperative may affect ethnic grocery stores run by immigrant families in Queens and the Bronx, which may fail to compete if a new cooperative of this scale chooses to open in those places.

Despite its struggles, the coop seems to be a sustainable social initiative. Apart from fresh, organic, and cheap produce, they benefit from educational programs, lectures, screenings, and other social activities. Many interviewees found meaningful friends and partners through the cooperative. Park Slope is now one of the few racially and economically diverse community-led initiatives that remains active in a highly gentrified neighbourhood in New York City.

The documentary is a key educational resource for food coops operating in Montreal, some of which include Epicerie Coop Montreal, Le Frigo Vert, the Concordia Food Coalition, and Coop les Jardins de la Résistance. The model provided by Park Slope can perhaps even be improved in its replication.