“Now the first and greatest of necessities is food, which is the condition of life…” Plato, The Republic
When I came to Fayetteville in the late seventies, to live with strangers in a rented house, and study English, the University was already a huge, impersonal institution with hermetically sealed classrooms. I was fresh out of the army, lonely and wandering, a small GI Bill stipend my only income. Stretching $300 a month to pay college expenses and rent and still have something to eat was challenging.
Near the old railroad depot, on West Avenue, was a warehouse with a loading dock. Walking up the steps onto that dock, I remember the smells of curry and Tiger Balm, patchouli and sweat. It was exotic and somehow affordable, like a third-world country. I could spent twenty dollars there and have food for a week, beans and brown rice, almonds, dried fruit, hard cheese and harder bread.
A couple blocks down the street was John Porter Produce, where old men gathered to play dominos and sell bananas and apples and roasted peanuts. That was good, another cheap food source, but the co-op was different. The co-op was vital, alive, young mothers, kids underfoot, dogs, carpenters and masons and painters in their work clothes, all moving through, talking, laughing.
There was a bulletin board on the wall where you could find a lot of stuff: a room to rent, a truck to haul your load, banjo lessons, lost cats. Somehow, in all that activity, I became a member, and started to take part in this new-found community. With membership came responsibilities, members worked. There was bulk to break down and put in bags, cheese to cut and wrap, tend the register, sweep the floor, fix the door. And, in all that activity, I lost my self-consciousness, made friends, stopped feeling like an outsider.
Now, when I go to Ozark Natural Foods, I feel like that outsider again. The staff is…wait a minute, when it was a co-op there wasn’t a staff. We were the members, we did the work, there was never a “them and us” feeling at the co-op. Now there is. What was once empowering and inclusive has become just another alienating consumer experience.
Do we, as a community, still have the shared and sharing values that helped us find our way to co-operation? Or are we simply individuals who have a small stake in a big, impersonal business?