Blame it on the 60’s
A time of increasing social and environmental awareness, there was also a growing mistrust of the denatured, over-packaged food coming from the corporate cornucopia, inspiring the creation of many a food cooperative. “I was glad to have removed myself from dependence on Grand Union; this cellar was quite a distance from those fluorescent lights and crowded shelves dancing with plastic highlights,” reminisces one member about the sacks of food on a “friendly” cellar floor across from a Texaco station that comprised the humble origins of the Plainfield Co-op. “I remember being puzzled, and a little uneasy when I went to collect one of my family’s first orders there.”
The Summer of ’69
As the Co-op grew, it temporarily relocated to the New School of Maple Hill during summer when classes weren’t in session. Members began grouping themselves by neighborhood to order, each neighborhood responsible for breaking orders down and distributing them to the individual members. “We reaped a lot of benefits. This was the first time there was good food, priced as cheaply as could be. Many of us learned for the first time the food doctrines that have since become second nature to us: a respect for whole-grain foods, a mistrust of highly processed foods, and a willingness to try ‘odd’ stuff that had evolved in other food traditions.” But the perks extended beyond favorable prices and better variety. “Another benefit, less visible and less material, was the strengthening of social relationship around the co-op. Once a month in each neighborhood, three or four families – generally with kids – would gather in somebody’s kitchen to break down the monthly food order and then deliver it. Co-op neighborhoods also held potluck dinners and picnics.”
Home on the Grange
Another move followed, this time to the former Plainfield Grange Hall which was used and owned by a small group of elderly survivors of the original Grange tradition, a virtual institution which had been vital to rural life for much of the last century, allowing isolated farm families a way to connect, socialize, and even show off their livestock. “In a manner that expresses the best of Vermont, the old Grange members passed on their hall for a nominal sum to this new, young, and vigorous bunch. They could see through our long hair, strange language, and manners to a decency of purpose towards American rural and farm life that wasn’t so distant from their own rural values.” As people – and pick-up trucks – started arriving from as far away as Waitsfield, Barre, and Montpelier. “In 1971, we began (gathering organic food) by ‘gangin’ up’ with other co-ops statewide and going down to New York and Boston,” reminisces Jim Higgins, a long time Plainfield Co-op member, “I volunteered to ride ‘shotgun’ on our maiden voyage to NYC in deep Vermont cold winter. Another Co-op member Jayne Isreal, slept on cardboard in the back (of the truck) bundled beneath several sleeping bags…” However, the little Plainfield Co-op was quickly becoming too big, and the “North-Central Vermont Co-op” was in need of a more streamlined way of monthly pre-ordering and a more central home.
In 1978, the co-op relocated to the ground floor of a working-class tenement building in Montpelier, reopening as the Hunger Mountain Co-op. While the early cooperators of 1969 wished the Hunger Mountain people well, they wanted something small and close to home, and Plainfield was without a co-op. Following an “uphill struggle” of about a year, Plainfield Co-op finally reopened as the Winooski Valley Cooperative Market, Inc. “1978 was not 1969, and the impulses and force weren’t the same, and with the Hunger Mountain Co-op just 10 miles away, we no longer lived in a Co-op’less world, either. It was hard to mobilize enough momentum to get a new, local co-op started. But after a succession of coughs and sputters, like a car on a zero-degree morning, the engine of our ambition did catch fire.” Ironically, the new Plainfield Co-op ended up renting the former home of the old Plainfield Co-op – the old Grange Hall – from the Hunger Mountain Co-op, eventually buying the building for a nominal sum, and fashioning the building into a storefront. Since 1978, much has changed, both outside and in. A walk-in cooler was added, the upstairs made over, and, after a 1980 “Home Energy Audit”, the attic was insulated and interior storm windows installed. Display coolers and freezers were installed by members, and a Children’s Play Corner designed and built by members during a series of member work days in 1993, when the yard was also cleared to make was for gardens.
The Co-op Today
The Co-op and Community Center mean different things to different people. For some it’s great food; for others, it’s a gathering point and active center of community activities, ranging from spaghetti dinners, to film showings, art exhibits, meetings, political gatherings, workshops, classes, dances, plays, concerts, and auctions. Recent books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and documentaries like Food, Inc. make an overwhelming case that healthy food is more important than ever. At the Plainfield Co-op, we couldn’t agree more.
Food is revolution and we’re “Co-op to the Core”!
(photo credits: top; bushel boxes of produce; members packing food – all by Clyde H. Smith courtesy of Blair & Ketchum’s Country Journal, December 1974)