Suggestion Box: Let Us Educate You

Norman Weiss, Weavers Way Purchasing Manager

Greetings and thanks for writing. As usual, suggestions and responses may have been edited for brevity, clarity and/or comedy. In addition, no idea, concept, issue, remark, phrase, description of event, word or word string should be taken seriously. This also applies to the previous sentence.

Seems like politics is looming large lately — locally, regionally, nationally and at Weavers Way. Some people question whether there’s a role for a food co-op in politics, although I would hope most people agree that it’s a good question to ponder.

In the ’70s, the Weavers Way Board, upon request from members, would put things like the United Farm Workers boycott of lettuce and table grapes on the agenda for membership meetings. Discussions at those meetings could become heated — often not about the merits of the boycott or the plight of the farmworkers but about the role of the Co-op in consumer choice.

Some members, even if they supported the boycott, thought it should be an individual decision, not one made for everyone by the relatively small group of meeting attendees. Some thought we should be providing information, others that it was our role to take a stand against injustice. That reasoning was based on the idea that the Rochdale Pioneers had organized the first consumer co-op to provide an alternative to a food system that was unjust.

Back then, the Board drew a pretty defined line when it came to issue-oriented topics: Weavers Way would encourage discussion (including meetings and allowing posters and handouts) but would not allow political candidates to campaign in any way. I think this may have started when a Weavers Way staffer ran for committeeperson.

Many food co-ops have preferred to mostly stay out of politics. In fact, the Rochdale Principles, the founding document of the modern co-op movement, used to include a principle obliging “Political and religious neutrality.” The 1966 revision by the International Co-operative Alliance omitted that principle, maybe because it appeared to exclude cooperatives affiliated with religious groups (lots of European co-ops are Catholic in origin), but also because it is enshrined in Principle 1:

Voluntary and Open Membership
Co-operatives are voluntary organizations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.

(The 1966 version added Principle 6, “Cooperation among cooperatives,” and a 1995 update added Principle 7, “Concern for community.” Now you know.)

While I support these values, after 40 years of being involved in consumer food co-ops, it’s clear to me that there is an elephant in the room, which is, as author Michael Pollan says, “Eating is a political act.”

What we eat has broad ramifications — political, environmental, cultural, personal and more. The obvious political connections to food include major legislation like the Treaty Formerly Known as NAFTA, the US farm bill and USDA organic standards, and local food politics like keeping backyard chickens illegal and making vacant land available for community gardens. Environmental regulations governing animal feedlot locations and operations are a result of millions of people eating the products of these feedlots. Chocolate lovers who became aware of the “forced labor” (i.e., slavery) in the cacao-raising business helped bring about legislation like the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act.

Co-ops, just by being food businesses, affect politics. And while after 40 years I’m still not sure what our co-op should be doing about boycotts and ingredient bans, I do believe that one of our most important roles is spelled out in Principle 5:

Education, Training and Information
Cooperatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their cooperatives. They inform the general public — particularly young people and opinion leaders — about the nature and benefits of cooperation.

For Co-op members to be aware of the implications of their food, they need to have relevant information about where it came from — how it was grown, raised, produced, manufactured, packaged and transported. This is sometimes simple, like apples in wooden crates trucked 130 miles from family-owned Three Springs Fruit Farm in Adams County, PA. But more often, it’s complicated, like Berkeley, CA-based Annie’s Organic Ketchup. Who picked the tomatoes? How were the pickers treated? What about Annie’s parent company, General Mills? What do we know about the distributor, UNFI, a publicly traded company whose ownership can change at any time? What went into producing that plastic squeeze bottle? And what’s the impact of dealing with it when it’s empty?

Modern food co-ops manage research and education to varying degrees. I don’t know of any co-op that I think does it well; most do it for their local products and local vendors, because it’s easy to speak to them, although it’s not as if we interrogate them about their politics.

With larger, national brands, this is not as easy, but still possible to some extent. When some Weavers Way members were urging a boycott of Eden Foods because of the Hobby Lobby ruling (the one where closely held private corporations didn’t have to include contraceptives in their employee health plans), I was able to have an in-person discussion with the son of Eden’s founder about the issue.

Here is what our then-Board President Jeremy Thomas said at the time (the Oct. 26, 2014, General Membership Meeting), which seems apropos now:

“We have a broad and diverse base of members, who span the spectrum of political and religious beliefs. All sides and opinions need to be heard and respected. . . . the Co-op’s official position remains that members and shoppers should make their own decisions about purchasing Eden Foods products. . . . We won’t make it for them. I encourage everyone to continue making informed decisions, to understand more about the companies that produce the food products you purchase, and to continue this important conversation.”

Whatever you think about a co-op’s role in politics, P5, the Education principle, should be a starting point. The consequences of food choices exist whether we are aware of them or not. We might as well be aware of them.

suggestions and responses

s: “Plain ordinary sugar? There are a million kinds of sugar at the Co-op but no ordinary sugar.”

r: (Norman) “Ordinary” sugar is more refined than the varieties we stock, mainly to be white in color and to dissolve easily. We don’t stock it because, one, we don’t have a good supplier of “ordinary” non-GMO sugar, and, two, at least with cane sugar, it’s mostly from large food companies that have been charged with treating workers unethically. We think the Zulka sugar we stock is the best choice for an almost-ordinary, less-refined sugar with acceptable production practices that supports small farmers. Also, Zulka is non-GMO and vegan, which “ordinary” sugar may or may not be, since it can include GMO sugar beets, and could be filtered with bone char, which some vegans avoid.

s: “Madagascar pink rice isn’t very pink.”

r: (Norman) Color is a perception and varies by individual based on the cone cells in their retinas. Never assume the way the world looks to you is the way the world looks to everyone else. Most shoppers who buy pink rice find the color emotionally calming and thus never complain that it’s not very pink. You might want to consider seeing a color therapist to have your cones recalibrated to the proper color emotions.

s: “Shawn (Mt. Airy Deli) made wonderful marinated mushrooms, please keep them coming!”

r: (Rick MA) Thanks, Shawn is a gem who not only runs a good Deli department, but is a creative chef, too!

s: “Is receipt paper recyclable?”

r: (Norman) We use non-phenol-coated receipt paper. Our information is that this receipt paper is recyclable. Members also have the option to have receipts emailed instead of printed. You can turn on this option for your household yourself in the online Member Center ( You’ll have to log in; if you need help with that, contact the Membership Department directly at 215-843-2350, ext. 119, or email

s: “Please stock multigrain bagels.”

r: (Rick MA) The Fill A Bagel Great Grain are multigrain.

s: “Why has no one in the food industry come out with peanut milk?”

r: (Norman) Soy milk, rice milk, almond milk, oat milk, cashew milk, hazelnut milk, hemp milk, coconut milk, pea milk, macadamia milk, quinoa milk, walnut milk — what do all of these have in common? One, none are milk (since they are not secreted from mammary glands), yet they contain the word “milk”(although, if the dairy industry gets its way, not for much longer). Two, all are manufactured products with no teat-sucking involved. Three, ironically, all originated in the natural-food industry, despite being pretty far from being naturally occurring foods (although you can make your own nut milks using natural processes like grinding and pressing and filtering). There actually is a peanut milk on the market. It just hasn’t become that popular yet. However, the real reason peanut milk has not been widely adopted is too many people grew up eating Jif and Skippy, so peanuts simply have too much childhood trauma and other emotional baggage connected to them already.