Rizzo on Upright, 'Grocery Activism: The Radical History of Food Cooperatives in Minnesota'

Craig B. Upright
Mary Rizzo

Craig B. Upright. Grocery Activism: The Radical History of Food Cooperatives in Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020. 264 pp. $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5179-0073-1; $106.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5179-0072-4.

Reviewed by Mary Rizzo (Rutgers University) Published on H-Midwest (April, 2021) Commissioned by Dustin McLochlin (Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museums)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55515

Food is political, but rarely in a simplistic way. Take food co-ops. While cooperative food practices date back to the nineteenth century in the United States, they peaked when the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s revived them to put their oppositional politics into practice. What could be more radical, suggested the hippies, than pooling resources to buy groceries to stock a store where everyone was owner, worker, and shopper, all at once? Some, but not all, of those foods were organic, grown without pesticides and dangerous chemicals, and hard to find in mainstream supermarkets. Today, consumers looking for organic foods have few co-ops to turn to, thanks to Whole Foods, a grocery store created by a union-busting libertarian to sell organic and other supposedly healthy products that was bought in 2017 by Amazon, a multibillion-dollar company with a long history of violations of workers’ rights in its quest for profits. Is buying organic still oppositional politics under these circumstances?

Craig Upright argues for a qualified yes in Grocery Activism: The Radical History of Food Cooperatives in Minnesota. The book engages the relationship between organic foods and co-ops through a sociological study of Minnesota’s history of cooperative food activism broadly from the nineteenth century into the 2010s. While capitalism may have co-opted them, co-ops helped train people in “intentional consumerism,” or more carefully considering “both the origins and implications of their food purchases” (p. 7). He argues that early co-ops became closely associated with organic food as their “retailing domain,” even though selling organic food was not their main purpose (p. 125). He uses Minnesota, with its long history and large number of cooperatives, as a case study, asking why co-ops were able to spread and survive beyond the Twin Cities.

The heart of Upright’s book is the story of the new-wave co-ops of the 1970s. Using trade publications, government reports, co-op newsletters, and interviews with the founders and members of the 1970s co-ops, he tells the story of the rise of new-wave co-ops in the Twin Cities region thanks to the efforts of left-wing activists. However, a conflict called the “Co-op Wars” erupted in 1975-76 over the class politics of the co-ops and what food they sold. Upright argues that, in response to the destructiveness of the Co-op Wars, “beginning in 1976, individuals who were more pragmatic and dedicated to issues of food production and consumption took the initiative” in opening co-ops outside the Twin Cities (pp. 164-65). This reduced the number of worker co-ops, where co-op members were required to work in the store, in favor of consumer co-ops, where shoppers used them solely to purchase goods that might be harder to find elsewhere and that were associated with healthfulness.

Upright rightly refuses to see co-ops simply as ideological spaces. Instead, he reveals them as “minimalist organizations” that had to innovate an infrastructure to do their work (p. 94). As the co-ops grew, they became part of a network of people and goods that, he argues, was created because of the Co-op Wars. In 1975, for example, co-op leaders created the All Cooperative Assembly (ACA) for increased coordination, education, and outreach and to “divorce political issues from the distributing warehouses and to address a division of labor across members of the organizational field” (p. 161).

Thanks to the ACA, which created an infrastructure to help new co-ops open, they spread beyond the liberal hotbeds of the Twin Cities. The new co-ops borrowed the structures of the earlier, successful co-ops, except with fewer explicit political commitments outside of food issues. For example, the St. Peter’s Co-op, which organized in 1979, asserted that it would “refrain from endorsing political stands or candidates of any kind” (p. 169). Rather than setting off into the unknown, these co-op supporters followed what already worked, standardizing co-ops into the consumer model that paved the way for Whole Foods.

Grocery Activism suffers from two flaws. First, Upright argues that mainstream acceptance of organic food is a sign that the food politics of the 1970s changed Americans’ orientation toward food. In doing so, he downplays the power of capitalism for co-optation of radical movements. That the least radical aspect of the co-op’s ideology has survived suggests that capitalism has yet again turned a political movement into consumerism.

Secondly, Upright ignores important secondary sources in his research. Even though the book is published in sociology, I am troubled by the author’s lack of citation of historians who have dealt extensively with the history of grocery stores and food cooperatives, the counterculture as a social movement, countercultural businesses, and even the Co-op Wars in Minneapolis, a niche topic that has, nonetheless, been discussed by Barbara Ehrenreich, Joshua Clark Davis, and me.[1] Where, for example, is Doug Rossinow’s excellent analysis of the politics of authenticity, which dovetails beautifully with Upright’s discussion of Steven Luke’s conceptualization of the third dimension of power, which seeks to change individual values?[2]

Possibly this is a function of disciplinary boundaries. Clearly, no one scholar can read every book on their topic in every field. Unfortunately, incorporating these works would have strengthened Upright’s book by allowing him to focus on his most interesting argument regarding the spread of co-ops in Minnesota through the creation of specific organizational types and distribution networks rather than confirming what historians have already shown.

While historians working on food and social movements in the postwar period will find Upright’s story familiar, his close case study of Minnesota’s radicalism and food politics adds a layer of analysis to our understanding of how countercultural ideas were put into practice that will be of interest to scholars of the Midwest.


[1]. Tracey A. Deutsch, Building a Housewife's Paradise: Gender, Government and American Grocery Stores in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2014); Joshua Clark Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017); Mary Rizzo, “Revolution in a Can: Food, Class, and Radicalism in the Minneapolis Co-op Wars of the 1970s,” in Eating in Eden: Food and American Utopias, ed. Martha Finch and Etta Madden (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006); and Barbara Ehrenreich, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (New York: Perennial Library, 1990).

[2]. Douglas C. Rossinow, The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

Citation: Mary Rizzo. Review of Upright, Craig B., Grocery Activism: The Radical History of Food Cooperatives in Minnesota. H-Midwest, H-Net Reviews. April, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55515

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