The League of Young Voters

Let’s All Cooperate — By Rachael Weinstein
January 21, 2008, 6:07 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

My back-to-the-land parents wished to embrace the rural lifestyle as much as possible, so they moved from New York to a town of about 900 people in central Maine. Here they lived a peaceful existence as tree and vegetable farmers; they raised sheep and guinea fowl; they adopted a retired racehorse and – until the barn-raising – kept it in a stall attached to the house. I suppose that to them, trying to be self-sufficient was unquestionable after living in New York. In Maine, they are blessed with the land with which to grow and nurture food, the neighbors willing to lend a hand to a couple of greenhorns, and a community in which sharing is both a way of life and a necessity.

It was in this atmosphere that my brother and I came into the world and enjoyed our childhood. We were reared with an interesting conglomeration of values inherited from the community: part small-town conservatism (after all, we were the only people who lived on the Day Road whose last name wasn’t “Day”), and part drum-circle, potluck-party, mantra-chanting liberalism (a.k.a. my parents and their friends). But it didn’t take long for me to realize that a great mixture of these disparate types of folks often came together, cooperated, and even agreed – and not just at the annual home brew contest.


When I was a very little girl, I would sit on my Dad’s lap as he moderated at Town Meetin.’ After the usual updates from the Game Warden/Cemetery Manager on the state of deceased things, and the bickering about schooling and road repair, people would leave the meetin’ and have a drink together. No matter how much a person mistrusted, disagreed with, or suspected another person of arson, they’d support their right to live and work on the land we all call home. After all, the town was founded by fiercely independent farmers years before Maine became a state; that endurance and cooperative spirit still persist today.

You see, there’s a special understanding amongst Mainers regarding agriculture: it’s our legacy that we share together. It’s an amazing thing to know where your food comes from, who produces it, where they live, and what it takes to create that food. Even though about half the population of the town thought my parents were crazy for wanting to live in cooperative housing, everyone recognized the importance of cooperative food, childcare, governance, snow-clearing, and sharing enough “dressin” for everyone’s vegetable gardens. Even after I moved away, the value of cooperative community is one that I took with me to college.

Ironic that I should move away to New York.

No, not “The City.” Ithaca, New York: that haven of a town where, not unlike my hometown in Maine, there is great differentiation between the townies and the wonks who teach or study at Cornell University or Ithaca College. However, one thing about Ithaca struck me as poignantly different (aside from the fact that it is the North American seat of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama): GreenStar Cooperative Market.

When I was there, GreenStar’s slogan was, “You belong here.” Naturally, I moved into a house across the street and applied for a job.

It changed my life. No kidding.

Aside from my everyday tasks on the checkout line, I learned about how to live a wholesome vegan lifestyle; the economic, social, and environmental importance of supporting local farmers and manufacturers; the necessity of fair and just labor practices; and the far-reaching impact of providing healthy choices to your community. When I worked there, I met the most bright-eyed, healthy and happy children I have ever seen.

Ask any founding member of GreenStar about their first year in 1971, and you’ll probably hear a story very similar to what the public heard at the seedling Portland Food Co-op forum last Tuesday, January 15th: it was a huge load to bear for an all-volunteer organization; people disagreed on which products to supply and which to deny; money was always tight.

Thirty-seven years later, GreenStar is thriving with five different departments – Bulk, Deli, Grocery, Produce and Wellness – over 6,000 members and $12 million in annual sales. (Ithaca’s population is fewer than 30,000 not including, of course, the 30,000 at Cornell alone.) They offer community classes on everything from “Designing an Ecosystem,” to cooking winter stews, to “Help for Fibromyalgia with Chinese Medicine.” The Deli makes in-store entrees, soups, sandwiches, and baked goods accommodating every sort of diet; nearly everything is composted, and all dishes and silverware are re-usable. The co-op buys from over twenty local farms, both organic and conventional.

But, just as with the Portland Food Co-op, it started with a handful of people in a buying club with a dream.

Despite my love for Ithaca and my obsession with GreenStar, I moved back to Maine, this time to the “big city” of Portland. I enjoy the community here – the local arts, history, culture, intellectual atmosphere, waterfront, and politics all excite me. I’ve fallen in love with a man and we own a home together. I have an ever-expanding circle of friends who are loyal, supportive, and fun. But there’s just one thing missing that prevents me from truly accepting Portland as my home. You guessed it: a co-op.

Portland is ripe for a cooperative market: it is a collectively conscientious town with many different types of wealth readily available. There are dozens of farms in the area with – as demonstrated at the forum – farmers more than willing to sell through the local market. The Greater Portland area is financially the wealthiest in the state, with loads of resources for grants, loans, and private donations. It also has the state’s largest number of Mainers: creative, hard-working, and resourceful people willing to put in the time and energy to successfully create a sustainable cooperative market. We have twice the population of Ithaca. Do we dare to prove that we have twice the determination?

FMI on Portland Food Co-op.
FMI on GreenStar.


7 Comments so far
Leave a comment

yes!!! We do dare!! Right on.

Comment by Caribeth

Rock on Portland Food’s time!

Comment by Fea

Thanks for calling up some precious memories–not as wistful nostalgia, but as a challenge. What Caribeth said!

Comment by jackaroodave

This is so well written — thank you! And like Caribeth said, we do dare!!

I haven’t been to any Portland food co-op meetings yet, but would like to go soon. How close is the group to getting a food cooperative? And how can I help?

Comment by Bri

I want this to happen too because I think it’s important and necessary in terms of environment and community. I agree with Rachel’s blog 100%.
My personal interest in the co-op is to find a way to make and market my bread and ‘turbo’ hummous. I have no capital so I can’t just open a fully fitted licensed premises.

Good luck to all, Marsha

Comment by marsha dawson

What a joy to know that you appreciated the life we shared, Rachael, and express it so beautifully in relation to your efforts. Did you know that we were among the founders of the first coop in Maine in 1972? The Food MIll Co-op began with us in our little town. Coming together with neighbors of diverse social and political interests, OVER (the sharing of a basic need) FOOD, encouraged communication and caring; we had a common cause! If we can help in your efforts in any way, please let us know. We had experience with ordering (FedCo), making runs to the Boston Market and Maine farms (I was in charge of eggs!), cutting up cheese rounds, and even roofing a building when we opened our first co-op store. We went from using homes (for our ordering meetings and break down) to the Grange Hall, and then to our own store in a larger town nearby. Good luck!

Comment by Deena R. Weinstein

What a lovely story Rachel and very encouraging. I am interested in getting involved in the co-op too. The baby (and football) has prevented me from getting to the Sunday meetings but, I plan on coming to one soon! Thanks for sharing your story!!

Comment by Pam Kasabian

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