TALES FROM THE COOP Now at foody.org/coop.html
MEATING FROM HELL
Two weeks after the General Meeting, I visit the USDA, where I am personally assured that genetically modified food tastes great and is less filling.
Should the coop sell meat? Like nuclear proliferation, the dread issue had to come eventually. I'd predicted that the vegetarians would get violent over this, and I was right -- but for the wrong reasons.
Other clutter came first, starting with Open Forum questions. Coordinator-booster and board member Electromagnetic Israel, complaining from his back-row seat that he could barely hear, said that the new checkout scanners were so fast that he couldn't pack his groceries promptly; he requested baggers. Top coordinator and board member Joe Holtz read a resignation letter from another board member, Melinda Marx. Marx had won coordinator election support because of her antirevolutionary position that board members should act only at the small, coordinator-dominated GMs. But after her election, she hadn't bothered to attend a GM for six months.
Holtz, speaking for the Renovation Committee, said that the new Building Next Door would be in partial use by September, with renovation continuing thereafter. He admitted that unexpected foundation work had already eaten a third of the budget reserved for cost overruns, but pointed out that that's what the reserve is for.
The anti-genetically-manipulated-foods committee reported that Japan's new, strict food-labeling laws might have "gigantic repercussions" for American GM food exports -- a laughable claim, since the Japanese are technophiles who long ago replaced traditional diets with ramen. The committee also said it was training members to speak against GM food and getting them speaking gigs.
Then we had a Disciplinary Committee election starring three candidates for three seats. Two got votes of 50-0 and 50-1, but the third was approved by 43-6. He had been grim while the other candidates were funny. Or maybe six people (including me) didn't buy his claim that being a naturopathic physician would help him to judge coop miscreants.
And just to torture us, the agenda also had a bylaws-revision proposal that clarified the difference between a coop board member and a coop officer. It was "kind of mind-numbing language, and if you're like me it makes you want to turn your brain off," admitted the proposer. She accepted only one of several fiddling suggestions from the audience, which approved the motion overwhelmingly anyway.
Finally, the meat of the meeting. The cute lesbian proposer said that she herself supported vegetarianism and veganism, but that the coop, especially with the expanded space of the Building Next Door, could also support "carnivore" members by selling kosher or free-range, organic, sustainably raised meat. (The coop already sells poultry and fish.) Carnivore members buy meat elsewhere and can be unaware of their meat's provenance or of meat issues, she said. "I'm not personally promoting the eating of meat. It's a personal choice. I'm just trying to promote that choice," she said.
She got lots of audience response, most of it respectful and some of it guilty ("I eat a little meat," "not much but some -- and I smoke," "I own dogs and accept moral responsibility for the meat they eat.") Some said the supported the motion because they supported buyer choice. Some worried about market forces: would selling meat drive away veggie members? What if no one bought it? What if we couldn't find a source for meat that was raised organically, free range, and allowed to play noncompetitive games before slaughter? (A coordinator said that organic-meat suppliers had been waiting to sell to the coop for years). When coopers have to go elsewhere to buy meat, don't they buy other products still sold at the coop?
More speakers opposed than supported the motion. But the audience could have swung either way, especially with the commercially oriented coordinators packing the room as usual. The presenter herself was so pro-veggie that I first suspected her of cryptofacsist consciousness raising for having raised the issue in the first place. But when an angry vegan challenged her, lecturing her about how even in the best of conditions, raising animals for slaughter meant environmental ruin and cruelty to both animals and abattoir workers, and railing against dioxin in Kleenex and how selling meat would give "moral sanction" to all these evils, she said, "I totally hear you and totally agree with you, but the issue is whether we provide real dietary choices." And despite being a relatively new coop member and completely new to the GM, she defended herself with aplomb against his repeated attacks.
Gently defending meat, Holtz quoted a visiting cattle rancher who once said that his land wasn't suitable for anything but raising cattle, and that as with poultry and fish, meat would be wrapped so it wouldn't have to be touched. "We're not planning to open a butcher department," Holtz said. "Joe," replied a member, "when I go downstairs [to the poultry cooler], those chickens are dripping stuff from the boxes!" "It's ice," mumbled a coordinator behind me.
The coop mission statement -- a long catechism that, like the Bible, can support anything you like -- was invoked both for and against the motion. The angry vegan said the mission statement mandated supporting sustainable agriculture. Someone else quoted "we seek to avoid products that depend on the exploitation of others." Later a nicer vegan said the mission statement supported "social responsibility and caring for others" -- those others being carnivore members.
Several supported selling organic meat as a way to lure members toward better diets, even vegetarian ones. "Until we take greater [pro-vegetarian] steps, we can take smaller ones," said the proposer. "You join the coop, you're going to change the way you eat. . . . [There could be] a conveyor belt of people willing to change," said another member.
Other opposed such gentle change. When the presenter said, "If you wanted to make a big statement, then we should ban all poultry and fish," the angry vegan yelped, "Then why not change your proposal!" "A dead carcass is dead carcass whether it's a chicken or a pig or a cow or a salmon," said another. "There's no way to slaughter an animal peacefully and lovingly." "Are we going to make the coop dirty before we clean it up?" "Two steps forward, three steps back." "Why add to past problems like chicken, fish, and Kleenex? Why not stop here?"
A few showed a neurotic fear of meat, complaining that it could "contaminate everything it touches, including refrigerators and shopping baskets." "I have to worry about taking contaminated food to my children," said another. Electromagnetic Israel said he'd gone from being anti-plastic-bag to putting everything in plastic to protect it against disease from chickens. Confusing "mad cow" disease with trendier news, he added that even though "they say" it's no danger, maybe hoof-and-mouth disease will be found 20 years from now to have infected the coop. But he did correctly note that even organic kosher meat was no more healthful than "feedlot" meat. The proposer eventually withdrew "kosher" from her motion.
But the debate shifted to coop politics after a confessed meat-eater said that the coop's strength was consensus over deep issues. (Untrue, but new members are entitled to their illusions; it makes shopping bearable.) He said that if any issue was divisive enough to make people uncomfortable, "maybe it should be put off." The proposer challenged him to quantify the depth of this issue, but he declined, citing instead the hurt feelings of the angry vegan. A coordinator then illustrated divisiveness by telling the tale of the ham sandwich. A formal complaint had been filed after a checkout worker munching on a ham sandwich argued with a shopper who challenged such carnivorous behavior. It was the ham eater who had filed the complaint, though.
"This isn't an ego thing for me," said the proposer, saying that she was now concerned about consensus. "This push to make a decision tonight," said an audience member, "is unwarranted and pushy. . . . It's a major political issue. We don't have to decide today." Though some continued talking about meat's minor pros and major cons, others spoke positively of a referendum that would poll the whole membership, instead of just those attending the General Meeting. A coordinator said that she wasn't generally in favor of referenda, thanks to their huge expense and administrative work, but that since there was an imminent coop-wide mailing for the upcoming Annual Meeting board-of-director elections, a referendum question could be added to the mailing at no extra cost.
The proposer asked if any coordinator had a problem with that. Holtz said, "I have a problem with it, but it's different," and conceded that there'd be no extra cost.
The proposer said she now preferred a referendum. But she resisted formally revising her motion, despite gentle and conversational guidance from the chair. The audience shouted helpful and not-so-helpful suggestions, such as whether "certified organic" was better than "organic." "Is this how we make proposals?" cried out someone upset by the anarchy. Yes, the chair said calmly.
By now the meeting had been extended twice. As the proposer conceded that it was she herself who had to decide to propose a referendum, and then decided to do so, board member and coop president Eric Schneider called out, "I don't think it's legal to have a referendum." Some coordinators shouted incredulous responses, and when Schneider begged to be recognized, the chair refused. A cochair read the new motion that included the referendum.
"I am the president of the coop and I am an attorney! Give me two minutes!" yelled Schneider. "You are out of order! You are seriously out of order!" shouted back the chair. As Schneider continued, "The reason why this could be illegal," the chair yelled, "Thank you for recognizing yourself!" He picked up the organic hardwood gavel -- which I have never seen used since its purchase years ago -- and banged the table repeatedly till Schneider shut up. "It's ten after ten and you're behaving abominably!" shouted the chair. Schneider looked around the room and asked, "Is there anyone who wants to hear why this is illegal?" When the chair asked Schneider to "sit or vacate," he finally quieted.
A more polite attempt to kill the item in its infancy was a motion to table the proposal. But a quick audience vote defeated that, even with the evening's louder veggies voting yea. When asked to vote on the item itself -- "to conduct a referendum for the coop to carry organic meat," to be included in the annual mailing -- the audience voted 26-12, with 4 abstentions.
"It passes," said the chair. Joe Holtz led the board of directors in approving the GM's decisions: 5-0 for the election and bylaw items, but only 3-0 for the meat-referendum vote, with board members Schneider and Kathy Bauer abstaining, and with Melinda Marx absent as usual.
It was so late that the chair canceled some end-of-meeting routines, but he did open the floor to the usual criticism/self-criticism. Most speakers said that he shouldn't have silenced Schneider. A vegetarian complained that the chair had coached the meat proposer. Another, despite his history of supporting more directly democratic coop governance, complained bitterly that the GM's shift to a coop-wide referendum had made "virtually meaningless" his precious time and effort to attend this meeting. Electromagnetic Israel again complained from his back-row seat that he had trouble hearing, and said that if anyone wanted help in defeating the referendum, he had "experience in soliciting the membership" (i.e., pestering members on the shopping floor).
Back to list of dispatches.