John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The Brooklyn grocery is in the news for wanting to ban products from Israel, but over the years it's also exiled grapes, apples, sugar, light bulbs, water, tuna salad, etc., etc.
For nearly 40 years, Brooklyn's Park Slope Food Coop has waged a quiet war to topple murderous dictatorships and bring cruel captains of industry weeping to their knees.
The co-op's diplomatic cudgel? That would be the grocery-item boycott, through which the store hopes to swerve the course of human history toward the greater good.
As you may have heard by now, currently up for boycott consideration are any products from Israel. The co-op's 15,500 members will decide next month whether to hold a referendum to ban Israeli couscous, organic paprika, and seltzer water from the store's larder. The Union Street grocers hope that such a unilateral gambit – which is in alignment with a worldwide movement known as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions – will force Israel to treat the Palestinians with more respect.
The couscous embargo may mark the first time that the co-op has meddled in the incendiary politics of the Middle East, but it certainly isn't the first time it's banned a vegetable for being politically incorrect. In fact, when the store was established in 1973, it already had a ban in place against apartheid apples from South Africa. It has since grimly shuffled a cornucopia of products to and from its shelves, including sugar, water, orange juice, lettuce, Coca-Cola, and anything at all from Colorado. Sometimes the co-op puts these products back up for sale when the boycott is no longer needed (Chilean grapes), and sometimes shoppers are doomed to haul their canvas totes to, horror of horrors, Associated Supermarket (Coke and Nestle).
The perennial boycotts make for a fascinating history of international politics, although in themselves they seem to have had zero impact on world events. Without ado, please enjoy this timeline of foods and household goods that have so “upset a significant number of Coop members,” according to the store's boycott guidelines, that they were banished from circulation. (Note: This story sources greatly from the co-op newsletter, the Linewaiters' Gazette, which evinces gaps in the historical record. Some dates are approximate, and noted as such.)
LET THE BOYCOTTING BEGIN...
1973: The Park Slope Food Coop is born. Something you won't find in the produce department: South African apples. Coop members finally get to bite into these rare fruits when the country holds its first democratic election in 1994.
Around 1973: The co-op halts imports of grapes from Chile to protest the military coup of Augusto Pinochet. This act marks the beginning of the Great Grape Famine on Union Street. Under a different boycott, the co-op refuses to stock California grapes until the state's growers settle a labor beef with the United Farmworks' Union. That ban lasts more than 20 years before the shop decides to just buy organic grapes.
1990s: Light bulbs made by General Electric disappear from the hardware aisle. This removal is in retaliation for GE selling jet engines to the U.S. Department of Defense. Writes Fran Hawthorne in The Overloaded Liberal: “Sylvania, the other major supplier, also was rejected, because its prices were too high. Who was left to buy from? The co-op ended up obtaining its bulbs from some obscure Polish company.”
1995: The co-op blocks any items that originate in Colorado. Recalls one member, “We voted in 1995 to boycott the state of Colorado, as a response to its passage of an anti-gay rights ordinance, even though the affected companies were arguably innocent, and had not advocated nor campaigned for the ordinance.” Exactly what products were stopped at the border is unknown, but according to the Census Bureau, the state's top commodities include “meat of bovine animals,” aircraft engines, X-ray film, crude oil, molybdenum ores and “whole hides & skins.” Park Slope's sales of black-market molybdenum promptly go through the roof.
2004: The co-op initiates a long boycott of any drinks made by Coca-Cola, such as Minute Maid, Odwalla, Dasani and Fanta. This strategic masterstroke is meant to combat a host of Coke's alleged evils, like conspiring in Latin America with paramilitary torture squads, racial discrimination in its workforce and fueling the childhood obesity epidemic in the United States. Oh, and anti-labor practices, human-rights violations and the “appropriation of local drinking water from drought-prone regions.”
2001: All Domino products, including sugar, are whisked away to highlight a plant labor dispute in Brooklyn.
2008: Plastic bottles of water vanish from the store. In their place, a water-filtration system is installed for members to use. The boycott apparently is related to plastic's detrimental effect on the environment, with some special sauce of social justice thrown in. Explained one co-op member when the ban was taken up for vote: “The motion before you is to discontinue selling bottled water, and that includes water of pretty colors and with zesty flavors because dressed up or plain, the sham is the same and the same tragedy results if only those lucky enough to be affluent can drink.”
2008: Plastic bags exiled.
2010: After a three-hour tribunal, the co-op votes to temporarily ban a certain member over her “angry, confrontational altercations” that involve an attempted return of a "rubbery" cooked chicken. The incident marks the unusual, regrettable occasion when the co-op's boycotts get personal.
2010: The store kicks off a boycott of tuna salad, Sonny & Joe's hummus, lox spread, schmaltz herring and other kosher delicacies manufactured by Flaum Appetizing Products. Reports the Linewaiters' Gazette: “Williamsburg-based Flaum Appetizing violated minimum wage and overtime laws. The National Labor Review Board settled the case and ruled that 17 workers who were illegally fired need to be reinstated, but the owner has defied the court order. These workers are asking stores to remove Flaum, Sonny & Joe’s, Tnuva and Bodek products until a settlement is reached.”
2011: The co-op makes the pages of The New York Times after telling an organic dairy farmer that its members would “not shop from any area that allows fracking.”
And here are a few boycotts that I could not find dates and explanations for:
- Pepperidge Farm cookies, perhaps because the company allegedly wouldn't reveal whether it used Chinese ingredients.
- Tropicana juice, maybe because its parent company, PepsiCo, donated money to the Bush administration.
- Iceberg lettuce, probably because of the United Farm Workers dispute.
- Nestlé products, because of the company's perceived promotion of milk formula over breast-feeding.
- Coors beer. Pick one possible reason from this screed of alleged crimes: pollution, union-busting, funding the John Birch Society, “homophobia, sexism, racism, and covert operations,” and of course, being from Colorado. Strangely, the taste of the urine-like brew is not mentioned.