Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

19 April, 2007

The Gift of Second Site

Whether or not you agree with John McNamara's assertion that Willy Street Co-op members should vote no to a second site, you have to admit that he's right when it comes to what he labeled "propaganda". Here's what he wrote:

Lately, the uttering of management and the board seem like so much propaganda (keep in mind that they all get a significant discount for their food, so maybe they are guilty of not really knowing how much things cost). Recently I visited the 400 member People’s Grocery in Toledo, Ohio. The feel of the place was so incredibly different. It felt like a coop, not the mega-mart that Willy Street feels like. The General Manager ran the cash register. They only time that I see the Coop’s management staff is at the Crystal Corner (often with the GM holding court) after work or before a board meeting (not that there is anything wrong with that--in fact, I admire their choice of taverns). I have never seen the GM on the floor of the store!
The ballot area only has positive statements about the second site. This, in my mind, is a violation of the Cooperative principle of Education and Democracy. How can members make an informed choice if they are only offered management’s talking points through the mouths of directors?

I think the last bit is the most relevant here. I have the ballot sitting here right in front of me and it seems like management considers the second site to be a foregone conclusion. Just as the ballot area at the store only has positive statements about a second site, so it goes with the ballot itself. General manager Anya Firszt and Opportunities Committee Member Ingrid Rothe both get considerable space in which to express their support for the measure but no arguments opposed are given room. Firszt writes, "I encourage you to become informed about the issue". Well, if McNamara is right and the ballot area in the store has nothing but comments in favor, what is the best way to become informed about the other side of the story? (Manufacturing consent, anyone?) If you do become informed and decide to vote against the second site, the ballot itself has space for you to explain your deviation from the management-approved position. Just don't make a go of trying to be nuanced like McNamara. The ballot gives but you a line about 3" long. (Which I now see that McNamara pointed out.)

Honestly, I don't shop at the co-op much anymore and this is for a multitude of reasons. One is that I no longer work downtown. When I did, the co-op was on the way home and so it was convenient. Now that I work on the far west side, it is less so. Another is that my tastes and cooking habits have changed. I found out that the co-op was not the optimal place to shop for exploring Polish and German cuisines nor for going about recreating medieval recipes from hundreds of years ago. To be sure, the co-op was great for certain ingredients – most vegetables, barley, butter, et al, but not for many others. A large aisle of potato chips and other organic junk food to the contrary, there seems to be an unwritten rule at the co-op which states that non-Western cuisines, medicine, and ways of living are, in general, better than those of the West. There's a distinct lack of ethnic foods that aren't from the East; countless herbal supplements from an industry that has neither to prove the safety or efficacy of their products which are purported to be ancient remedies from the mysterious past of some Eastern country; plus there's lectures and demonstrations on varieties of homeopathy.

Regarding the ethnic food selection, I take that as a matter of course. No big deal – they're just catering to members' preferences and I cannot begrudge them for this. As far as promoting homeopathy, I don't have that great of a problem with it but I do hope that people don't forsake Western medicine completely. The only time I really have a major problem with homeopathy is when it comes to herbal supplements. I think the co-op ought to be ashamed of its promotion of them. When Wal-Mart hawks the stuff, consumers can see that the motive is profit. But when the co-op sells it, there's an endorsement of a certain lifestyle and ideology behind it. And I view it as one that denigrates science and paints a false picture of the manufacturers of these supplements. For starters this is the area in which the co-op most heavily endorses the fallacy that because something is "natural", it therefore must be good. Arsenic occurs naturally in the environment but it is hardly good for human consumption. Secondly, I think it makes hypocrites of the co-op. For all the bitching about agricultural mega-corporations, herbal supplement makers are hardly different. Smaller than ADM? Of course. But these supplements are not made by mom-and-pop apothecaries. The makers are corporations that have lobbyists making sure that the FDA stays off their backs so that they do not have to prove the safety or efficacy of their products. They can slap whatever herbal concoction they want into a pill and sell it as long as they don't say it cures or is intended to treat a specific ailment. Thusly the labels on the bottles are almost pure puffery. If Kraft started marketing food with no FDA oversight, you can bet the co-op community would cry foul – and rightly so. But when it comes to "natural" products, companies get a pass.

Along similar lines is the co-op's campaign to instill fear into its patrons regarding genetically modified foods. This can best be seen best by the use of the term "frankenfoods" in the store and in the newsletter. Last year when E.O. Wilson gave a speech here in Madison, someone asked about such foods. When he replied that he thought they could be part of the solution to global hunger, there was an audible groan from the audience, many of whom were, no doubt, co-op members. Because the evil hand of humankind was involved, they are deemed "unnatural" and therefore are bad. This is not to say that we couldn't stand to learn more about these foods but using a derogatory name serves only to cease discussion & investigation. Hence the manager's comment noted by McNamara - folks will eat this "crappy food and get cancer".

I don't shop at the co-op much anymore out of lack of convenience but also out of ambivalence. On the one hand, they do have wonderful products and I appreciate the emphasis on organics and stuff from local growers and producers. Cooking classes, music – there is in fact much to be positive about. But, the co-op encourages consumers to look at the big picture when it comes to foods they eat. Where did it come from? How much gas was used getting it to the store? Were chemicals used during growing or processing? That there are many consumers who considering these questions is something the co-op can justifiably be proud of.

But when I look at the big picture I also see that shopping there means supporting Luddites, of a sort, who engage in fear/smear tactics. It also means giving tacit support to "alternative medicine" and the herbal supplement industry which, to me, means that I'm lending support to snake oil salesmen.

Plus the place is really goddamn expensive.
|| Palmer, 3:42 PM


You have some very realistic and valid points here. Thanks for helping me burn my Friday office afternoon.

By the way. Your last line was the cherry on top of the sunday :-)
Anonymous Craig D, at 2:42 PM  
To tell you the truth, P, I think your comment about the co-opers "unwritten rule which states that non-Western cuisines, medicine, and ways of living are, in general, better than those of the West" is both right on and off the mark - yes, thinking about it, there are a lot of Indian, Japanese and pan Asian foods (tofu et al), but honestly, a majority of the food there is western in orientation. If there were huge bags of rice but a small bread section, or those crazy delicious little thai eggplants instead of the big ol aubergines...
but on the other hand, yeah, now that you mention it, there are a lot of asian-ESQUE foods there, perhaps because people feel good about eating them. But honestly, in our city one is not in danger of losing out on the opportunity to eat foods traditional in the west. As far as medicine goes, to my knowledge homeopathy is a western tradition, as is aromatherapy. And most people use herbs and the aforementioned items as complements to traditional 'western' medicine*.

My arguments for not shopping at the coop spring mainly from price, but I have been able to see my way around that lately as you know. I started shopping at the coop when in 1980 - and it has changed for the better in many ways. There were several years during which I refused to shop there because I felt it was very unwelcoming. Their effort to compete with Whole Foods (which they are doing whether or not they admit to it) has made the place more pleasant for me as a shopper.

But yeah, they are too damned expensive.

*I have been trying to find more words than East/West (which feel really limiting) and failing miserably.

The D
Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:48 PM  
CraigD - You're welcome. Thanks for having dropped by.

As for you, Ms. D - I agree that there is no shortage of things Western at the co-op. I noted the potato chips and, as per our conversation this past weekend: they were invented by a Native American chef in 1853.

My use of "homeopathy" was incorrect. I was thinking about the herbal supplements and their claims that they have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. Perhaps a better way to think about it is that the co-op's ethos is anti-Western capitalism. There's nothing inherently wrong with this but I think its embrace of the naturalistic fallacy is part of it. In the broadest sense, the "West"'s embrace of capitalism and industrialization means that it has become dislocated from nature. Non-Western cultures, on the other hand, have a reputation of being closer to nature because they haven't been bespoiled by McDonalds and Wal-Mart and are thusly good. This is obviously changing but, back in the 1960s when people like Herbert Marcuse were speaking to college kids, there were no fast food joints down by the pyramids at Cheops.
Blogger Palmer, at 8:33 AM  
I see what you are saying (and boy do I agree about the "naturistic fallacy") but I have to vehemently disagree that the coop is anti-captialism! They are in it to win it, and being a part of the larger market in the way they want to be is very much capitalistic. They are "member owned", but make no mistake the management is capital M management, and money is a huge factor for them.

As I mentioned, I've been shopping there for years, and it has never ever been so expensive.

The D.
Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:06 PM  

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