Doing What Comes Naturally
By Gordon Edgar
Food and its distribution have been the spark for more riots,
revolutions, and political movements than anything else you can
name. Still, in a rich country such as ours, food can ebb and flow
as a political issue. The mid-1970s, however, was a time when food
was in the forefront of many people's political work. Rainbow Grocery
Cooperative started as part of an ambitious food system in 1975
that sought to incorporate collective stores, producers, and distributors
into one big counter-cultural network that would destroy corporate
agribusiness by providing healthier, less processed, cheaper food
While almost all of the food collectives that made
up that network have collapsed over the last 30 years, Rainbow
has survived, becoming the largest natural foods store in the
San Francisco Bay Area. It has gone from an all-volunteer staff
to a 200-person worker cooperative, still dealing with the ongoing
issues of how to best support its community - and who their community
As a worker cooperative - rather than a consumer cooperative -
Rainbow's workers make all the decisions. There are no community "members." There
are also no managers. Big decisions are made by the worker membership
as a whole or by the worker-elected Board of Directors. Day-to-day
decisions are made by individual departments, which oversee specific
areas of the store like produce, vitamins, cashiering, and maintenance.
first way that many Rainbow workers identify their coop as serving
the community is by creating stable jobs.
"I appreciate having
a living wage, amazing health insurance for myself and my partner,
and the opportunity to be involved in the direction and development
of my business," said Francine Madrid, a Rainbow worker-owner recently elected
to the store's donation committee.
"Some cooperatives see their basic mission
as returning the profits extracted from labor to those who created them. This
is very important, as traditionally secure working-class jobs are being exported
beyond the US's borders," says
Joan S.M. Meyers, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology who studies democratic workplaces. "In
theory, worker-ownership of businesses can create stable, well-paying jobs
that allow people to return to their communities with the economic means to
enjoy them - money to pay rent, buy food and entertainment, even buy houses
- without professional degrees or inherited wealth."
The way that Rainbow
operates also makes for good jobs, not just stable ones. Sarah Jarmon, a
worker-owner who has also served on the donations and grants committees
says, "I appreciate
that Rainbow has been able to remain as a democratic workplace, even as the
store expands and the economic climate is not friendly to independent grocery
Who Gets Served?
Outside of the economic benefits to their worker-owners, the other
huge benefit of coops is the goods or services that they physically
provide to the community.
The biggest and most obvious example of Rainbow's support for the larger community
is providing natural food, supplements, and health information to the Bay Area.
In addition to running the grocery, Rainbow workers were involved with helping
set the original California state organic standards in the '80s and have been
committed to helping small and local farmers and producers survive in an era
that is hostile to their existence. All of this is needed to help bring fresh
and healthy food to an urban population.
Of course, Rainbow Grocery's customer
base and its worker-owner makeup are directly tied to the question of whom
within the "larger community" all
these efforts serve. As with many other food-based coops around the country,
Rainbow's original base of customers and workers tended to be counter-cultural
- and not reflective of the demographics of the city or even surrounding
the neighborhood as a whole. In recent years, effort has been made to change
this, by developing an internal anti-oppression training and by hiring more
people of color. These steps have brought in some new customers, expanding
the number of people who benefit from Rainbow's distribution of good food.
They have also had a significant effect on Rainbow's support for organizations
that were not previously as closely linked with organic foods and worker
"As our work force gets more culturally diverse, those people
tend to want to reach out to their particular communities. I feel like
I have the opportunity and responsibility to give financial assistance
to the communities I identify with - women of color, urban Native
American, Xicano. Rainbow empowers me to help my community in a
way that can really be perceived," says
Beyond being a conscientious grocery store, Rainbow budgets about
4 percent of its profit for donations and grants. These range
from paying for food shipped directly to soup kitchens, to support
of tenant-rights organizations, to grants to help people start
other cooperatives (even ones that could be seen as competition
by a traditional capitalist businesses).
To read the rest of this piece and other great Clamor features,
please pick up a copy of the new
issue, or subscribe