In the mid-1970s a beat-up old panel truck made a circuit around the Kootenays delivering bulk natural foods from the Fed-Up Co-op in Vancouver to food-buying clubs in the area.
That’s part of the 40-year history the Kootenay Co-op will be celebrating Friday.
Alex Berland of Passmore was one of those buyers.
“We were activist hippies,” he says, “and it was very much a conscious counterculture that was interested in self-sufficiency. The food co-op movement was part of a much larger activist movement. It was the early stages of independence from big business, big governments, big unions — trying to do something different.”
About 20 families in the Vallican-Winlaw Food Co-operative, started in 1975, would order bulk food, and then when the truck came, they’d get together and divide it up.
“It would be delivered to Robert McCready’s basement in Vallican,” says Berland (pictured below).
Those gatherings to order and divide up the food were an important community builder in a movement that was about more than food.
“We had a community library and a community school, a theatre group, various water improvement groups, and the Vallican Whole was being built then. We would have two or three meetings a week about these things, and it created a strong sense of solidarity. We were poor — granted it was self-imposed — and we had to make up our own entertainment, but being with a group of like-minded people who shared that poverty meant that no one felt bad about it.”
Berland says it was the beginning of the international movement toward understanding where our food comes from, “making healthy choices for ourselves and healthy choices politically for the planet.”
He says the movement was very politicized, and actively supported Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers’ movement in the US. They created the first public discussions of the politics of food, says Berland.
“People said, ‘Wait a minute, these grapes, this lettuce, is dirty. It is produced in an unethical fashion.’”
For anyone who wasn’t around in the ‘70s it is hard to imagine the lack of what we now call natural foods or health foods, and the organic farming movement had hardly started. People in the buying co-ops bought things in bulk like brown rice (not available in any store), raisins, nuts, huge rounds of cheese that they could cut up when it arrived in the truck, rolled oats, molasses, and other very basic cooking ingredients.
“A lot of what we were doing was teaching ourselves how to cook in a different way,” says Berland. “We were not living in the white bread homes of our parents. In those days it was the heyday of packaged foods, and this was going right back to cooking from scratch.”
The buyers’ club eventually became the Kootenay Co-op, which opened a small space in South Slocan in 1981, then in 1985 moved to a store where Gerick’s is now, and then the next year moved to its current location at 295 Baker St., where it has become the largest independent consumer-owed natural foods retail co-operative in Canada.
The 40th birthday party is Friday. From 2 to 4 p.m. there will be kids’ activities and crafts in the covered area, including light refreshments. From 5 to 8 p.m. the directors of the coop will be there, along with “eats and treats — snacky samples of local foods,” says marketing director Jocelyn Carver.
Anyone (not just co-op members) can put their name in to win gift baskets.
Asked about the connection between the current co-op and the world Berland describes, Carver says, “Our coop was one of 50-plus started in the early ‘70s, and we are one of the few that remain a co-op. We continued to find our role in the community. We grew in step with the community.”
Berland and his partner Judi Morton run the Passmore Pluckers poultry abattoir and Tulaberry Farm in the Slocan Valley.
The current world of the Kootenay Co-op is a far cry from Berland’s description of accompanying the Fed-Up Co-op truck, “manoeuvering this battered old truck around the province, making our way around Cape Horn [above Slocan Lake].
“In those days, it was one lane on the cliff and you would send someone out ahead to make sure you would not have to back up in this beater. And the guy who ran it was a big trucker with a pony tail, totally committed to food co-ops, a bit like the tinker in medieval times who would travel and bring the news.”