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Local Economy

The Great Peanut Butter War

EXTREMELY BC: My brief career as enforcer for our neighbourhood food co-operative. Then, rebellion.

Charles Ungerleider 19 May 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Charles Ungerleider is a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia who writes a blog on education and rarely goes a day without peanut butter.

Officially established in 1976 and evolved from a 1960s predecessor, the Agora Food Co-op was gently nestled in the bosom of Vancouver’s affluent west side, a counter-cultural alternative giving a middle finger salute to corporate consumerism. Refusing to make involuntary contributions to profit-hungry agribusiness by shopping at multinational food chains, co-op members — socialists in Volvos — shopped at Agora while making payments on summer cabins on the Gulf Islands and vacationing in Cuba and Belize. It was a time in history when “health food” was taking hold as a concept. Julia Child was despondent.

Agora was a consumer-owned and operated grocery store. As a co-operative, Agora proclaimed itself a democratic organisation controlled by its members, who were active participants in decision-making and policy. Those serving on committees and the board were, according to the co-operative ethos, accountable to the Agora membership. Unlike chain stores that gleamed with a rainbow of pop colours, the co-op was awash in ochre and moss green tones. Linoleum floors curled at the edges, and the bulletin board in the back offered soap making classes and notices of demonstrations in support of proclaiming Vancouver a nuclear-free zone. Earthy was an aesthetic and an ethos.

In exchange for two hours labour per Member Over the Age of 12, co-op denizens could find everything from alfalfa sprouts to ziti. Well, not exactly everything... only those things approved by the Education and Brands committee. This committee was to the general co-op membership what the politburo of the Communist Party was to the general party membership. It defined what the public needed and should have — for the greater good of course. It also echoed the organization’s name, which goes back to ancient Greece — a meeting place to hear statements of the ruling council.

Most of the work of the co-operative was performed by its membership with the exception of the co-op’s day-to-day management. Supported by a small surcharge on the cost of goods sold, the co-op’s co-managers did the bookkeeping and ordered the products approved by Education and Brands. Members — more or less ‘from each according to his ability’ — cut and wrapped cheese, stocked shelves, culled spoiled produce, washed floors, cleaned toilets, tallied member purchases and collected their money at the checkout counter.

As Members Over the Age of 12, my wife and I were required to perform two hours’ work each month. But, as parents of young children who would have otherwise required a babysitter while we toiled on behalf of our brothers and sisters, we brought the kids to “help” cut and wrap cheese and package bulk foods in smaller, more manageable quantities. What we regarded as an early form of service learning, our children regarded as work experience of the sort provided to convicts in the southern United States. Had they been aware of them at the time, I’m certain they would have launched a complaint with UNICEF or the International Labour Organization.

When we’d drive to the co-op in our VW Beetle, our kids would complain and look longingly at the bastions of corporate grocery culture that we shunned. When their overt complaints of maltreatment failed to persuade, they shifted to a more subtle course, campaigning on behalf of the chain groceries. “They sell 15 kinds of peanut butter in there,” one would say, gesticulating toward one of the mega-merchants along the route to the co-op. “And about 100 kinds of jelly, too,” the other would chime in. We’d arrive at the co-op with two beleaguered kids for whom a few hours felt like five to ten for aggravated assault.

Members Over the Age of 12 noted the dates and times of their “work commitments” on record cards. Some members arrived at Agora and performed whatever work was needed; others performed specific jobs for which they committed themselves — such as running the checkout desk. My wife and daughters were in the former category, looking around for work to be done. I was in the latter, having distinct preferences.

The job I was performing when the peanut butter war began was one that no one else wanted: calling the delinquent members who had failed to fulfill their work commitments for three or more months. Possessing a Type-A personality (having been born and raised in New York), this was a job for which I was well-suited. While my wife culled produce and my children cut and wrapped cheese, I would spend two hours calling unfaithful party members who had neglected their commitment to the work of the collective. Most of the unfaithful simply needed gentle reminders delivered with humour. A few required the assertiveness that I had nurtured dealing with New York taxi drivers reluctant to take me to neighbourhoods they considered unsafe:

“I’m Charles, calling on behalf of Agora Co-op to remind you to fulfill your work commitment. Health Canada says memory-loss is a frequent byproduct of an unhealthy diet or too little sexual activity.”

“I’m Charles, calling on behalf of Agora Co-op. If you don’t get your butt in here and meet your long overdue work commitment, we’re going to have to ask Knuckles to pay you a little visit. You understand what I’m saying here, you lazy, good-for-nothing freeloading unco-operator?”

A man of simple tastes, my culinary preferences include Chinese food, chocolate ice cream and peanut butter. In its wisdom Education and Brands had approved peanuts that members could grind into butter and a bottled version of the same thing, peanuts ground into a gritty paste in its natural oils — no preservatives, no sugar, and no salt. “Feh!” as my grandmother might have said.

My uneducated palate craved smooth peanut butter of the variety that was stocked on the shelves of the supermarket chains run by capitalist running dogs, but guilt and an interest in organics encouraged me to work for change from within. The co-op maintained a list on which members could request items and this list was reviewed monthly by the members of Education and Brands. That committee would decide whether the product was politically acceptable — nothing produced by defence contractors or exploiters of child labour (co-op parents were exempt, I guess) — and was of sufficient food value and appeal to stock it in our limited space.

The first volley in the peanut butter war was my simple request that the co-op stock smooth peanut butter to fill the void. When I had returned to fulfill my work commitment the next month, I inquired about the status of my request. I was told that Education and Brands had taken no action and, thus, no stocking order had been issued. Passive resistance!

Believing it in harmony with Chairman Mao’s advice that “the organs of state must practise democratic centralism, they must rely on the masses and their personnel must serve the people,” I asked the co-ordinators to seek a decision from Education and Brands at its next meeting. A month later, I was informed that, since the co-op stocked two kinds (the self-grind and bottled version) of peanut butter, there was no demand apart from my request for another variety. Education and Brands failed to notice that the distinction between self-grind and bottled gritty peanut butter was negligible.

582px version of CharlesUngerleider1978BW.jpg
The author in 1978, about the time he was enforcer at the food co-op. ‘Years later I realized that the board’s rejection of my proposal was a harbinger of the fall of the Berlin Wall.’ Photo: submitted.

I imagined that Education and Brands was concerned that the co-op might be stuck with a product that would remain on its shelves until it was stale dated. Given that smooth peanut butter had a shelf life of several hundred years, this could pose a problem in a co-operative with limited shelf space and cash flow. I countered with an offer that I thought would address the problem: If the co-op would order a case of 24 jars of smooth peanut butter, at the end of three months I would purchase all of the remaining stock. Reasonable? In the context of a quasi-socialist organization I then made what I later realized was a tactically inappropriate move: I suggested that I would even front the money for the purchase.

Education and Brands rejected my proposal, claiming that among its reasons was the fact that smooth peanut butter contained salt, sugar and preservatives. These were reasons that I could rebut; I was, after all, an avid viewer of Storefront Lawyers — a television drama about three young lawyers who made career sacrifices to work on behalf of the oppressed.

Reminded of the Chairman’s sage observation that, “if there were no contradictions in the Party and no ideological struggles to resolve them, the Party's life would come to an end,” I countered by pointing out that the co-op stocked at least three kinds of honey, icing sugar and granulated sugar; kosher and household salt; and smoked oysters — which were almost certain to be carcinogenic. In addition, I pointed out that, from a chemical standpoint, sugar is sugar regardless of the form in which it comes. Secretly, I panicked that my strategy might encourage the removal of anything remotely sweet or smoked. Nevertheless, I continued my argument by offering to provide evidence from an international expert on diabetes and president of the American Diabetes Association (my brother-in-law) confirming my claims. Education and Brands rejected my request without providing reasons.

Undaunted by what I regarded as ideological stonewalling, I switched jobs. I gave up my position as a one-man police force for the co-op’s “work commitment” policy and began a monthly shift as cashier. I also drafted a petition in which I described my request and the response from Education and Brands, and asked members to support the matter with the board of directors of the co-operative. I asked each person to consider the arguments advanced in the petition and, if they agreed, to support my original proposal. Over the course of the next several months, I worked the membership as I worked the cash desk, persuading the majority of members to sign.

Heady from my organization drive, I forwarded the petition to the board along with information countering all of the arguments I anticipated that might be advanced by Education and Brands. The date of my appearance at the board’s meeting arrived. I restated the arguments advanced in my previous submissions and asked the board to accept them — or at least to consider my proposal to buy any unpurchased quantities of smooth peanut butter at the end of a stipulated period. I offered to provide a deposit equal to the cost of the peanut butter and the surcharge, but was still refused with looks of pity. I was clearly an addict or perhaps a stooge sent from the marketing department of Jiff. A nut job, if you will.

Notwithstanding the Chairman’s admonition that “in times of difficulty we... must see the bright future and must pluck up our courage,” I returned home to my family to announce that I had resigned from the co-op. My children cheered and began running around excitedly, imagining a new world of nitrates and corn syrup. My wife looked up from her loom, sighed, and muttered something about taking over all the member’s (now singular) work duty. She loved me for all my faults but couldn’t abandon the whole grain goodness of Agora. I was now — and would remain — an unrepentant, self-proclaimed, organic outcast.

Years later I realized that the board’s rejection of my proposal was a harbinger of the fall of the Berlin Wall. No, I didn’t put a peanut butter lid in a plastic bag as people did with pieces of the wall. The wall did come down. People embraced organic en masse. They flocked to expensive and well-manicured evolutions of Agora, places that stocked grind-your-own and smooth with a touch of sweetness. Major brands marketed health-conscious versions of previously taboo items and we chose a new evil to attack in the form of starch. We also reached across the ideological divide and found a middle ground upon which we could dine.

Yes, the co-ops were co-opted. I felt a little guilty and a little vindicated.

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