First of a two part series:
Waaay back in the mists of the sixties, the OB Peoples Food Coop was born. As best I can tell, its beginnings came in fits and starts. I remember participating in a Coop back in 1971, where we went to the North County to buy produce and eggs from small farmers. We drove back to Ocean Beach in a my 1962 Corvair (It was unsafe at every speed!) full of assorted boxes and sorted them out into individual orders at the STP (Serve The People) storefront, located on the 4900 block of Voltaire St. That storefront didn’t last very long, due to our landlord’s distaste for the vandalism incurred on the property by assorted right wingers. After the plate glass window on the front of the building was smashed a second time, we were gone.
The STP storefront was initiated by a group of us that lived on Saratoga Street. Our goal was to use the facility for organizing alienated young people into a cohesive radical movement. For us, organizing a cooperative food buying group was part of a larger plan that included draft counseling, legal aid, anti-war protests and educating people about the changing world as we saw it.
The food coop struck a chord, not only with other radicals, but with the more apolitical hippies and free-thinkers living in Ocean Beach. It seemed like each week we had more people signing up. When the storefront was closed, the Coop died for a while. And then it was reborn. I wasn’t involved in the rebirth, as by that time my attentions were shifted toward working on the OB Rag, which we’d assumed responsibility for after Frank Gormlie’s rather unfortunate encounter with the San Diego Police Department during an anti-war demonstration at Collier Park.
The food coop lived on and grew, eventually ending up in a storefront at 4859 Voltaire Street in 1972. I don’t know if any of the original people were still involved at this point; I do know that the concept resonated with the community. The old store front had a lone refrigerator where members picked out their perishables, adding up the cost themselves before handing over payment to the volunteer charged with cashier duty for that day.
In 1973, the coop moved into a more conventional setting, a former pool hall refitted with a mish-mash of fixtures, some donated, some made by members and some that were purchased. Over the next dozen or so years the OB People’s Food Coop functioned as a workers collective supported by member volunteers. By the early 1980’s the collective began experiencing internal strife, including an ongoing struggle about the relationship of the workers and the volunteers at the store. Although the Coop had managed to purchase its location by then, the store was in serious financial trouble.
Some of collective leadership proposed buying the coop and making it into a private, for profit enterprise. Coop members, along with another group of the store’s workers, opposed the idea, and in 1985 the decision was made to form a cooperative enterprise, with ownership split 50-50 between the employees and the membership. Some of those who had favored buying the coop left, eventually starting their own stores. (That’s a very short version of how Jimbo’s Naturally Stores came to be. And I’ve omitted—on purpose—any discussion of the turmoil that went on around the coop during that time. Suffice it to say that people said and did things that they now regret.)
The remaining group hired new management, who built the membership in the cooperative to over 8000 people during their first year, stabilized the finances of the store, and began making plans to build a bigger and better building. Although Coop continued to grow, the tensions between the workers at the store and the members continued to fester. Eventually, the group reorganized itself as a member-owned cooperative.
(I haven’t been able to find anybody who can fill me in on what happened during this process—please feel free to add to the story in the comments section if you have an insight as to what happened here.)
Cooperatives trace their origins to the hard times of the industrial revolution in England.
There, back in 1844, the first consumers’ coop was formed. Twenty-eight flannel weavers registered with the Parliament as the, “Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers.” Previously these workers had been fired and blacklisted by factory owners after they had organized a strike for better wages and failed. So, as a matter of personal survival, they decided that if they could not organize for better wages, at least they might organize as consumers for lower prices. The Pioneers opened their store with a minimal selection of butter, sugar, flour, oatmeal and a few candles. Within three months, they expanded their selection to include tea and tobacco, and were soon known for providing high quality, unadulterated goods.
Learning from earlier failed attempts, the founders of the Rochdale society developed a series of operating principles which enabled their success and the success of cooperatives to this day. These basic principles still guide cooperatives around the world. All co-ops contain the following elements:
• Co-ops are owned and governed by their primary users (the member-owners).
• Co-ops are democratically governed (one-member, one-vote).
• Co-ops are businesses, not clubs or associations.
• Co-ops adhere to internationally recognized principles.
Together, both with international and local farmers, food coops are a primary force behind creating food chains that stand for conscious and sustainable consumption. The beauty of co-ops and their supply chains is that they are transparent; you can get to know something real about the farmers who are growing your food.
Food coops nationally are growing in popularity and economic impact. A University of Wisconsin study in 2007 estimated that domestic food cooperatives generated close to $2.1 billion in sales revenue and over $252 million in wages and benefits paid.
Getting back to Ocean Beach…. After many years of discussion, planning and saving, the OB People’s Food Coop began a major renovation in 2001. Staying at the same location, they managed to construct a new facility, while keeping the original store open for business. In the end, they ended up closing for two days for the final conversions to take place. As part of the research for this story, I was given an insiders tour of the facility by Obcean Eco-Designer Jim Bell, who took great pride in pointing out the many features of the “new” store.
The new facility is a testimonial to conscious planning:
• The building was constructed using recycled content: steel, engineered lumber, and non-toxic, recycled and sustainable building materials at every opportunity. No old growth wood was used.
• The Co-op reduced the use of materials with open beam ceilings, exposed framing, and minimal flooring designs.
• Day lighting is used extensively and optimal lighting is achieved with the majority of windows facing north, reducing solar heat intake. All windows and skylights are dual glaze low E glass, designed to minimize undesirable heat-gain. Skylights and windows are operable and placed to maximize cross ventilation.
• Another energy efficient design feature is the photovoltaic cells (PVC) on the roof, which provide about 35% of the building’s electrical needs.
• More energy saving features include a solar thermosyphon system for hot water, low flush toilets, and landscaping that is filled primarily with drought-tolerant plants.
• An energy efficient refrigeration system upgrade included an increase of 25% in refrigeration system condensers. This is a passive addition that reduces energy consumption by reducing the running times of electric motors and the compressors that they power. All walk-in cooler floors are insulated from the earth and include thermal barriers to prevent cold-box slabs from serving as a heat sink for the buildings concrete floor.
• The building embraced the utilization of natural resources as much as possible, and energy efficient strategies minimize the impact on the environment; the building performs at 36% above California Title 24 minimum. The building project won an energy efficient design award from San Diego Gas and Electric’s Savings by Design Program.
• Demolition of the old building was primarily recycled, including concrete and asphalt—all salvageable wood was donated towards housing structures in economically depressed areas of Tijuana.
Today, with over 100 employees (OB’s largest employer), 11,000 members and nearly $12 million in projected sales for 2009, the OB Peoples Food Cooperative is a thriving local institution. Despite the recession, customer counts are growing, with nearly 100 shoppers joining the Coop each month. The organization has been aggressively paying off its construction loans on the property, and it appears to be in good financial shape.
There has been active discussion going back several years about opening an additional location; Coop Marketing Director Amber Forrest McHale, who started out volunteering at the store as a child, says only “As for a second location, we continue to keep our expansion options open.”
So there you have it: the OB Peoples Food Cooperative is alive and going strong, a voice for conscious consumerism that has survived almost four decades as other groups have come and gone. But what does it all mean? Is the coop just another business, living off the progressive good will of Obceans? Why is it vegetarian? What is the true cost of groceries there?
Good questions, all. And we’ll be exploring those questions in next week’s installment of this story. I’ll be comparing prices with other stores, talking about the buying standards that make People’s what it is, and looking the store’s social/political consciousness. Please feel free to add to this story in the comments section, and ask questions that you would like answered. Hopefully, the people who work at and run the Coop will join in this discussion.