During grad school in Minneapolis, I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class. In one easily overlooked footnote, she mentioned the “Twinkie Wars” of the early 1970s when the Minneapolis food co-op scene nearly schismed over the question of whether to sell processed food.. Intrigued, I delved into the archives and what became clear was that, like all wars that start from a seemingly inconsequential incident, it was really about a much larger issue, in this case, class and whether American radicalism would be Marxist or counterculture in nature.
Flash forward forty years and boy has the landscape changed. It’s hard to imagine how food could bring down capitalism when Wal-Mart is the nation’s biggest seller of organic produce and the aisles of Whole Foods are crowded with tattooed ad execs who cross blackberries off the shopping list on their Blackberry. For these reasons, I prefer to buy my fruits and veggies at farmer’s markets or produce shops like Iovine Brother’s, which I wrote about a couple weeks ago, or OK Produce, also in the Reading Terminal Market.
If you’re looking, like I was, for blood oranges and Meyer lemons, head to Iovine’s, which has a much more extensive selection. But if you’re looking for some regular stuff–eggplant, or spinach, let’s say, and want to save a couple bucks–than OK Lee will do just fine. Having grown up in a parsimonious household where my mother couldn’t walk past a supermarket shelf of marked-down fruit without stopping, I appreciate the amount of space OK Lee sets aside for day-old, squishy offerings. If you’re going to cook down tomatoes for sauce, why not get them a little soft? If you’re going to juice those fruits anyway, than a thumb-shaped spot isn’t going to hurt. Power to the people! Add to that OK Lee’s decent selection of nuts (though, strangely, I couldn’t find walnuts), dried fruit and aloe vera juice, and it’s a satisfying shopping trip. While there I found almost everything I needed to make a brussel sprout salad with dried cranberries and toasted walnuts, which I was bringing to a potluck for the South Philly Food Co-op later that night.
Given my historical co-op research, you can imagine my delight when a few months after moving to South Philly I found out that an effort to start a food co-op in the neighborhood was underway. As a member of the legal and financial committee, I’ve been involved in helping develop bylaws, membership structure and so on. It’s a fascinating process to be part of, a major aspect of which is figuring out exactly what we mean by “neighborhood food co-op”. South Philly is huge, and while some parts of it don’t have great access to food (or access to great food), other parts are bursting at the seams with Asian markets, regular supermarkets and the Italian market. Where the food co-op will be located is a huge question, as is what it will be. Will members be required to work? That old-school model from the heady days of the counterculture described above seems to be the path we’re taking, which is good, though it has its disadvantages, among them being a sense that it privileges certain people.
But at the potluck last night the ten or so people in attendance only touched on those issues.
Instead, we traded recipes and cookbooks; food blogs and iphone apps while noshing on homemade goodies, from a spicy thai cabbage salad (made by one half of the dynamic duo that writes the excellent Philly food blog Messy and Picky) to a tofu lime dip to oreo cookies wrapped inside chocolate chip cookies. Food brought us together to try to create a co-op–an act of audacious hope, to be sure–and we celebrated that last night.
Recommended: helping South Philly start its food co-op! telling me how to make my brussel sprout salad better. also, eating your veggies at OK Produce.