Driving the Van of Change: Uncertainty & action

by Sam Ihm, Promotions Coordinator

It all started with a van. 44 years later, how are the owners, employees, and shoppers of Common Ground connected to the foundational purpose of the co-op?

In 1974, a group of radical volunteers drove a van from the middle of Illinois into Wisconsin. Their mission was to get organic, farm-direct foods to bring back to the community. Things were a bit different back then in terms of access to healthy, locally grown food. With that inaugural road trip, they laid the foundation for the robust local food system in Central Illinois we know today. 44 years has literally changed the face of the earth and the people living on it; it's almost impossible to reconcile the public and private concerns we have today with what was going on in the year when "Kung Fu Fighting" topped the global charts. On the other hand, we are still fighting the battles begun in the co-op's founding years, and under curiously similar circumstances.

A quick survey of food co-ops across the country will tell you that many began around the same time as ours. These bubbles of local action were indeed part of a greater movement that continues today. In the 1970s, the grocery industry was undergoing a sea change in favor of cost-cutting and discounting. Efficiency was the new game, and mass-producing farms became big-time partners with big box supermarkets. While the food establishment made the reasonable effort to lower prices and therefore increase overall access to food, it was failing to support locally oriented, health-driven food economies. Radical actors saw the problem and took the solution into their own hands.

You know a bit of it, but here's the short of how we got where are today:

  • 1974: The original co-op owners took their first of many trips in a big van up to Wisconsin. They loaded it up with healthy, ethically sourced food, drove it home, and distributed the food from a church parking lot on Springfield & Wright in Champaign.
  • 1984: Interest in organic food, niche items, and non-sprayed produce grew enough that the co-op opened a store: 900 square feet in a church basement, staffed by volunteers. Deliveries were made through a window.
  • 1990s: Co-op leadership formed, paid staff were brought on in addition to the volunteers, and the co-op began partnering with local farms.
  • 2008: Steadily growing interest in the co-op merits a move to Lincoln Square Mall. At this time, just 10 years ago, the co-op had fewer than 10 paid employees. But people flocked to the co-op, and in 2012, the co-op expanded to its current size within the mall and employed over 70 staff members.
  • 2015: Another expansion is announced due to growth, interest, and the ability to serve a food desert near downtown Champaign. Evidently, Common Ground had reached carrying capacity, as sales began to level off and decline, disallowing the expansion.
  • 2018: Sales have returned to promising levels as the co-op focuses on what it is best at: providing high-quality, locally sourced, ethically considered foods to the community.

So here we are: 5,800 active owners supporting the co-op as an alternative grassroots food system that is as necessary as it was when it began so humbly in 1974. The co-op bolsters the local economy and community in ways that cannot be replicated by a corporation. If it were to ever go away, we would see that plainly.

The threat of failure keeps a business alive because of the action it prompts. Similarly, the threat of a failed food system drove the van of change that became the co-op.

It's easy to imagine that, when they drove that van up to Wisconsin, their cares and worries were smaller than what we deal with today; that their decision to revolt was easy and obvious and its execution seamless; that if we had to today, we would do the same thing in a heartbeat. But I think we'd be wrong to assume any of that. 

We should not take for granted the position we are in where, to ensure the co-op survives to strengthen our community well into the future, all we have to do is shop. We don't have to skip out on family or friend time to do a volunteer job most people would scoff at. We don't have to receive deliveries through the window or wait in a line outside the door to get in the store. We don't have to drive to Wisconsin for food. The biggest risks have already been taken by our cooperative predecessors. They faced widespread corporatization and chemicalization of the food system and took action to oppose it, even though it was hard.

Today, we exist among similar uncertainties and no one can tell the future. What will climate change do to our farmland and our relationship to food? How will Amazon's entrance into the grocery game affect food co-ops? With the never-ending pursuit of laboratory-perfected fruits and vegetables, what kind of food will people even be eating in ten years? What remains clear is that it's a really, really good thing we have a reliable alternative. 

1974 was the year that something began in Champaign-Urbana that would bring incalculable benefit to the local community and insulate us from the near-existential threats imposed by corporatization.

The co-op began the very same year President Nixon resigned from office for his role in Watergate. In 2018, that calls to mind an interesting comparison between Nixon and our own FBI-investigated president. Scandal and chaos are teaching us now, as they did then, that the systems that operate above us can do so with ignorance, imprecision, and recklessness. We can't rely on anyone else to do what's best for us. What choices would we be left with were it not for those radical few 44 years ago? What can we learn from the ominous silence that follows that question, and how can we continue to make a difference today?

For tomorrow's sake, challenge what's not perfect today. Take it into your own hands if you don't like it. Better yet, get some more hands and take it on together. That's the co-op. We will never have a perfect food system, but if we don't keep striving, we might be hearing about our fate secondhand. Striving is what drove the van to Wisconsin in 1974.