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Front Page > Issues > 2003 > March

The politics of food: it’s more than what we eat

Ken Kesey would have approved. Timbers from the original Merry Prankster’s high school found their way into the construction of the remodeled People’s Food Co-op in southeast Portland. The $800,000 project also includes green features like cob construction, two living “eco-roofs,” a solar chimney for passive air exchange, ground source heating, and a system of permeable walkways, landscaping and cistern that results in zero water run-off. But as Kesey would have pointed out, politics are personal and the remodeling activity around People’s is not just about bringing more organic products to customers.

“Portland contains many revolutionary ideas that are being actuated,” states Pedro Ferbel, member of the Board collective. “The co-op offers the opportunity to transform consumers.”

Ferbel sees the co-op as a revolutionary alternative to the capitalist model, offering co-op members more than the hollow role of consumer. The roughly 1,500 members of People’s Food Co-op — including all 17 co-op workers — are part of a democratized food distribution system in which bottom line is not the raison d’etre. Through the democratic process, co-op members have chosen localization of food sources, direct purchase from small farms, and organic produce when available as some of the key criteria for the co-op’s operation.

These standards do not produce the highest profits as measured by the capitalist yardstick. They do not take advantage of the vast numbers of public subsidies provided the food industry to keep corporate costs low and profits high — subsidies that hide real production costs related to pest control, storage, product packaging and appearance, and transportation. They do, however, help create infrastructures within the community that bring people closer to food sources that are healthier for the consumer, less damaging to the environment and represent social values that place people before profits.

“It’s not just about buying from local farms,” states Ferbel. “If we could find someone local who makes organic Green Goddess salad dressing we would sell in mass. That’s another way the co-op can help create demand for better food production.”

People’s has carried the ideas of sustainability and localization to incredible lengths. Food scraps that would end up in the trash at most retail operations are put into a compost system at People’s. The compost goes to community sustainable agriculture farms. The co-op just got a grant to start a vermiculture system that will eventually provide soil-enriching worms. During construction, the co-op needed large amounts of sand for the cob (an adobe-like material) construction. Rather than obtain sand from Ross Island Sand and Gravel — creating a negative impact on the health of the river — the co-op was able to obtain the gleanings from a rock-crushing machine at a local quarry.

The co-op, furthermore, is part of a larger co-op/alternative infrastructure. People’s works with Laughing Horse Book Collective, City Bikes Collective and other alternative businesses to build a community that is less reliant on the dominant capitalist culture and better able to turn progressive ideals into reality.

According to Dave Wadley, Construction Manager and member of the cooperative, acceptance of these alternative views was found in some surprising places.
“There’s no city code for a lot of the type of building we were doing here,” states Wadley. “Sometimes it would take several test runs to convince city engineers, but eventually they supported us.”

One of the toughest hurdles was getting the city to accept the solar chimney as an effective substitute for the forced air circulating system most commercial spaces use to meet air exchange requirements. Winning that battle was not just important for People’s but for others who want to employ similar passive, green systems.

Beyond the low-impact, earth-friendly elements of the remodeled People’s store, the new space is aesthetically pleasing and far more customer-friendly. With double the floor space, the co-op now has much more room for fresh produce and the educational tags that let consumers know where the produce was grown, whether it is certified organic and other data that allows for an informed choice to be made. The extra room also provided more space for the recycled containers area, the bulk liquid counter — a unique feature that utilizes nitrogen to ensure that there is no loss to spoilage — and better accessibility for customers with disabilities.

Construction work is still going on at the co-op. A community meeting area is still under construction. The well-lit space will provide a much-needed meeting area for co-op business and for groups within the community as well. The cob entranceway to the store is also unfinished and final landscaping has yet to take place.

Co-op members are hoping to be near completion by the March 22 grand opening. In the meantime, they’re encouraging people to drop by for an orientation about the co-op and the recent changes.


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Last Updated: January 29, 2003