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‘Food Coop’: The More Palatable Side Of Food Shopping

'Food Coop', screened as part of Barbican's 'Eat the Screen' season
Food Coop (France 2016, dir Tom Boothe); image courtesy of Barbican

In early 2019, Donald Trump hosted a dinner at the White House for the Clemson Tigers college football team after they won the national champion title. The now infamous photo of the President standing in front of the ‘massive amounts of fast food…1000 hamberders etc’ (yes, he meant hamburgers) that he provided for the team represents the pro-corporation, pro-consumerist approach that you’d expect from The Apprentice judge-turned-President.

The first of many questions that come to mind here is ‘where did he get all of that food from?’ I suppose the point is that it doesn’t matter, and I’m not sure he even knows. All that matters is that it’s there, it has the Burger King logo, and there’s lots of it. The abundance of food transcends its necessity—here, it is pure indulgence.

But this transcendence isn’t exclusive to the mega-rich. We forget, sometimes, that most of the food we eat—which is necessary for survival—comes from a supermarket, where such human necessities are certainly not honoured, particularly during the current cost of living crisis. And yet, because it is a necessity, we often don’t stop to realise just how much our survival has been absorbed by corporate powers.

This lack of visibility is a theme that runs throughout Thomas Boothe’s 2016 documentary Food Coop, screened as part of Barbican’s ‘Eat the Screen’ programme in early August. Not only does the documentary make visible this small market in Brooklyn, far away from the flashing lights of the White House, but the structure of this market also shows us a solution to this problem of visibility within the grocery industry. It shows us that, at the end of the day, food, just like other necessities, is about survival, not money.

The subject coop in Boothe’s film is the Park Slope Food Coop, where the coop structure—people working together to provide the foods they all need—is infamously strict. Only those who work the shopfloor for at least 2 hours and 45 minutes a month are allowed to shop. Boothe uses the doc’s 90-minute runtime to break down exactly how this works, from the membership system to the benefits of such a system, where shoppers enjoy mere 20% markups on a range of high-quality produce. The main driving force for this, Boothe would have us believe, is visibility: visibility of how the shop is run; visibility of where the produce comes from; visibility of where the profit goes. With such high-quality produce packed and stocked by those who buy it, PSFC claim they very regularly have to restock empty shelves, creating excellent turnover and reducing waste.

So how did they do it? How did they achieve such a tight system? Boothe opens the doc asking employees what they do for work. After we hear from nurses, psychiatrists, and schoolteachers, it becomes clear that many people don’t choose the PSFC because they have to, but because they need to, either because of financial hardship or because they are discontented with the supermarket system.

Being as economical with his filmmaking as the food coop is with its produce, Boothe is quick to exhibit the hunter-gatherer mentality at play in the PSFC, where the work that people put in is reciprocated by the produce they buy, at prices they agree with. The system is certainly airtight. However, at times, it feels slightly too tight—like an exclusive utopia. Apart from one venture into the Bed Stuy neighbourhood with one of the employees to see how the coop stands up against neighbouring markets, there isn’t a whole lot about the outside world. While this is understandable, as it isn’t the focus of the doc, it feels like the PSFC is a wonderland of consumer perfection, severed from the reality it seeks to place itself in.

Indeed, Boothe touches very lightly on the criticism that the PSFC has garnered for its strict rules on working hours. While this may be a necessity to keep it running, it doesn’t cater to every walk of life, particularly when some more fortunate employees try to get nannies to cover their shifts, as was reported in the New York Times in 2011.

The theme of visibility at the coop (as the closing line would suggest, “the trick is in the detail”) is somewhat let down here. Nonetheless, Boothe’s message still rings loud and clear. A large portion of the doc is spent dwelling on the history of the coop since its founding in 1973, including an interview with a member who likes to guess when members joined based on their membership number. Given that they were nearing 70,000 in 2016, it’s clear that the system they have created has worked. Boothe even interviews Joe Holtz, a co-founder of the PSFC, who laments about other food coops being founded on theories of economics, while the idea for his was proudly “not plucked out of an economics book”. Boothe is showing us that, as a system, PSFC is infallible, essentially prioritising food over money in the grocery industry.

From taking requests on which cheeses to buy in and where to buy them in from to ending on the compost heap that the coop contributes to in a local allotment, Food Coop is the answer to infringements on the right to food. As much as its ending, an explanation of the gentrification issues in New York, feels slightly on the nose, it is necessary, and for Barbican’s audience today in a time of ever-increasing need for a solution to the corporatised food industry, this direct, unapologetic message is as necessary as ever. Boothe is telling us that PSFC is a step in the right direction that we should be taking, with no reason not to take it.