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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 alternatives.

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 actually is.

Economic Power

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.

The 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 stores."

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 coops.

"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 Madrid.

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 now.

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