'Food for Change' Explores Co-op History

Screens in Northampton, Chat with Director

We in the Valley may have an above-average awareness of food co-ops. Take a Sunday drive around Western Mass, and you’ll find co-ops dotting the landscape, serving local communities and offering an alternative to the big box grocery chains that might not find it profitable to serve some smaller towns at all. But even the savviest of co-op members might be surprised by Steve Alves new documentary about the phenomenon.

Food for Change (playing Thursday Oct. 27 at Northampton’s Academy of Music, with a pre-show concert and post-screening chat with the director) is Alves’ 82-minute film, which focuses on the co-op as a force for change in American cultural history. Sparked when Alves was asked to produce a film for the Franklin County Community Co-op in Greenfield, the film became a passion for Alves. As he explored the deeper roots of the co-op movement, he uncovered historical films about the rise of cooperatives during the Great Depression — a rise that was undercut by the postwar focus on consumerism. To many, co-ops seemed to carry a whiff of Communism.

But as our culture evolved, and the natural food movement grew, the co-op made a comeback. The ’60s, as one might expect, were a period of growth for co-ops. But at the same time, national grocery chains began to merge, driving smaller, local stores out of business. Big agri-businesses were gobbling up small farms as quickly as possible, converting them to pesticide-heavy large-scale production. Co-ops again faltered, with those that survived focusing on the new organic food movement and a renewed commitment to truly co-operative values.

The final third of the film focuses on the co-op of today, exploring the latest surge in growth that has occurred over the last decade or so. Huge farms and national chains have not gone anywhere, of course, and while the co-ops have certainly adjusted their strategies over the years, the deeper truth, I suspect, is that we — the consumers — are the ones who have changed the most.

Jack Brown at [email protected]  Valley Advocate


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