Cooking up a conspiracy

“When a group of people want to buy food cheaply, but don’t want to pay rent or salaries or have a store and are all willing to work, they have a food conspiracy. Buying club and co-op are other names for this kind of organization, but they also apply to groups with paid managers, storefronts and profits.”

Cover of 'The Food Conspiracy Cookbook'So begins ‘The Food Conspiracy Cookbook’ by Lois Wickstrom, published in 1974, which outlines the emergence of the first of a growing wave of ‘food conspiracies’ in the San Francisco Bay area from the late 1960s, an era of radicalism that also saw an upsurge of activity around Black Power, feminism and LGBT rights.

As its name suggests, the book is primarily a compendium of wholefood recipes of its day, but these are surrounded by history and wisdom that can still inspire anyone interested in small-scale, co-operative food sourcing – especially those motivated by both a keen desire to save money and a politically conscious edge. She emphasises ‘everybody works’ as a crucial principle, sharing necessary labour as both as a safeguard against burnout and a fundamental principle of equity.

Most contemporary bulk buying clubs focus on long-life wholefoods (so called ‘dry goods’), but the first conspiracies began by seeking out fresh produce through farmers’ markets, later extending towards dry goods, eggs, dairy and meat, according to the wishes of their members.

The upsurge in these grassroots food conspiracies, which soon came to number several thousand across the United States, led on naturally toward the building of local and regional co-operative distribution systems. Ultimately, a significant proportion of food conspiracies evolved toward bricks and mortar co-operatives, offering a greater convenience decoupled from the previous collective commitment. Other groups faded under competition from supermarkets, while some fell victim to political wrangling or simply a loss of energy and impetus amongst those who began them. Nevertheless, for a few short years, food conspiracies raised up a vision for a different kind of food system – one that has been revived and extended in more recent times.

Today, bulk buying clubs, community supported agriculture projects and other small-scale initiatives often skate a precarious existence, but revisiting Wickstrom’s account affirms just how much can be gained from such efforts:

“It is possible we could disappear tomorrow, but that is one topic that never comes up for debate… However, there are perennial disagreements. We constantly analyse our suppliers on the basis of price, organicness and lifestyle, choosing those who best fill our requirements… We are all much more conscious of how we spend our money and where we spend it… Buying food with your neighbors is just a start. Sharing food with your neighbors leads to community.”

About this site

This site aims to encourage and support the setting up of further bulk buying clubs and small food co-ops in Ireland by sharing the experience of individuals who have operated a ‘pop-up wholefoods’ model over a number of years. It is also keenly interested in the history of similar projects.