“Let’s Eat Like We Did Last Summer”: The Food Conspiracy Newsletter Archives, 1971-1983

Wren Awry 

The following article was originally published in the first edition of the Living and Fighting Journal. Support our project by purchasing a copy here. Sales of the journal make it possible to print future journals. 

“The Food Conspiracy is not a hip health food version of a discount supermarket. We are conspirators against a political and economic system which rips off people for the basic necessity of food,” reads a Tucson food co-op newsletter from 1973. “Working together as we look for new lifestyles cooperatively lets us know one another and helps us get beyond our own individual trips. So with that in mind, it should be easier to understand the necessity for volunteer work to support the Food Conspiracy.”

As I page through the newsletters–housed in incomplete form in UA Special Collections–I encounter the call, albeit with slightly different wording, again and again: it’s tucked next to meeting announcements, and illustrated with solidarity fists and hand-drawn cartoons. [1] The last line, a warning, sticks with me: “Let’s try not to get lost in the rice and bananas.”

The Food Conspiracy was founded in 1971, when a buying club associated with Tucson’s Marxist-Leninist John Brown Party set up a storefront at 412 N 4th Avenue, selling staples like grains and greens to shoppers at, according to their first bylaws, “the lowest possible prices.” It started at a time when collectives were proliferating across the country in an attempt to create non-capitalist ways of living and working together: according to Jonathon Kauffman, five thousand buying clubs and cooperative groceries opened across the United States during the 1970s.[2] It started, too, on the heels of the 1960s, when food was central to struggles ranging from anti-Vietnam War fasts to theatrical free “feeds” hosted by the anarchistic Diggers;[3] and organizers for civil rights, Black Power, and economic justice started buying clubs in low-income communities.[4] “Food,” writes Warren J. Belasco of the era, “Was a medium for broader change.”[5]

Shortly after opening, the Food Conspiracy started publishing a newsletter. This scrappy publication was part of the co-op’s goals to, according to those early bylaws, “encourage alternatives to the present closed system of media communications,” and become a nucleus for revolutionary organizing in Tucson. In this effort, the Food Conspiracy was following in the footsteps of many of the co-ops that had already opened: most, according to Kauffman, “published newsletters that listed their profits and losses, urged volunteers to sign up for shifts … and provided recipes for all the new products they were carrying.”[6] These newsletters were usually supplemented by bulletin boards in the stores on which protest announcements, business cards, calls for solidarity, and class flyers were posted.

A chance library search led me to Special Collection’s archive of Food Conspiracy newsletters, which date from 1971-1976 and then from 1977-1983. Encountering the earliest of these publications–with their anarchist, communist, and socialist politics–was jarring, especially in contrast to what the Food Conspiracy is today: an expensive hip health food store catering to well-off customers in rapidly gentrifying Tucson. But by thumbing through these collaged, conversational texts, I gained a sense of what the co-op set out to be, and what a contingent of Tucson hippies and dissidents were thinking and writing about in the 1970s. These newsletters are often relatable and inspiring, and occasionally weird and uncomfortable. They’re also contradictory and hectic. They are, in both form and content, fragmentary time travel.

The second issue, published on October 21, 1972, includes instructions on how to join the co-op (four volunteer hours per month, with no membership fee); a call for recipes for a co-op cookbook; and information about an upcoming march, organized by the Student Mobilization Committee, against the Vietnam War. There’s an invitation to a “down home feast” and strategy meeting at Catalina Park under the headline, “Let’s Eat Again Like We Did Last Summer,” possibly a reference to the 1971 El Rio Golf Course occupation, when a coalition of neighbors and supporters protested the absence of a community center on Tucson’s predominantly Mexican-American West Side by, for an afternoon, “scattering the Bermuda-shorted golfers” and turning the green into a people’s park.[7] There’s also a recipe for granola with seeds, nuts, and raisins which, the anonymous author specifies, “is not a new invention. Your grandparents can probably turn you on to a recipe,” a nod to just how recent heavily-processed food was at the time. The “technological processes to produce dried soup powders and pudding mixes, salad oils, canned fruit juices, and ready-to-eat meals” emerged in the wake of World War II, alongside a bevy of pesticides, and most readers' grandparents would have been familiar with fresh, organically grown fruits, vegetables, and grains. [8]  

Granola recipes show up frequently in the Food Conspiracy newsletters, reflecting an anti-establishment trend for the homemade breakfast cereal. Natural foods were of particular interest to political dissidents and the counterculture, with ingredients like oats, tofu, and farm fresh veggies serving as a way to distinguish oneself from and push against the United States’ industrial, chemical-laden food system.[9] But granola also had another importance: as Liberation News Service journalist Ita Jones suggested, it was a long lasting, big-batch food well-suited to sustaining folks participating in building takeovers and occupations.[10] The role of food as nourishment during times of revolt emerged as a counter-cultural theme in the late 1960s, as uprisings in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and at universities in the United States and Europe were met with violent repression. For the first time—at least to the young people that made up the bulk of the university-based and hippie countercultures, including many Food Conspiracy workers and members—it seemed plausible that supply chains could break down and stores could close indefinitely. Hoarding bulk ingredients and learning to grow food took on a survivalist importance. [11]

The Food Conspiracy newsletter covered political movements and tendencies that might be of interest to its readers (or were, at least, of interest to the editors). While not everything they published or reprinted was beyond reproach–a series of articles reclaiming the settler-colonial American Revolution as people’s history and 1970s Leftist inclinations toward Maoism come to mind–many pieces offered feminist, anti-racist, and anti-colonial perspectives on the days’ issues. “Anytime you try to expose the system which is as vast as this system is, you know there are going to be many, many sacrifices,” writes then-incarcerated organizer Richard X. Clark in an article about the aftermath of 1971 Attica Prison Uprising, which runs alongside a call for funds from the Attica Defense Committee. The newsletter ran articles and cartoons on the American Indian Movement and other Indigenous struggles that were first published in Akwesasne Notes, started by members of the Mohawk Nation in 1968, and raised funds for the 1973 Wounded Knee Occupation. “What is anarcho-feminism?” asks an article by the women’s contingent of the Social Revolutionary Anarchist Federation, while an essay on gay women’s liberation reads, “Gay Women are faced with the stifling oppression of social ostracism–most painfully, often from their sisters.” Another piece decries the criminalization of vagrancy on Tucson’s Fourth Avenue, where the co-op has always been located. In it, contributor Elizabeth Baskette Neuarez cited an incident in which a sixty-five-year-old was thrown into jail because, as she writes, “he had no job,” adding, “It seems here that the authorities wants [sic] to hide the poor which shows that the streets do not belong to the people.” It’s a message that resonates today, as homeless encampments are evicted across Tucson and, in 2022, houseless neighbors in Santa Rita Park experienced water shut offs and locked restrooms in advance of a three million dollar renovation project.[12]

The United Farm Workers were on strike and leading boycotts throughout the 1970s, and the newsletter urged shoppers to avoid Safeway and A&P–supermarket chains notorious for stocking non-UFW products–and offered a detailed list of wine companies to sidestep and those to buy from: Gallo and Franzia were out, Heublein was in. Jerry Robinett informed readers that the Conspiracy would stock “Boycott Safeway” buttons and bumper stickers and, while he encouraged customers to take them, also mentioned that while prosecution was unlikely, “under the present law, you could be arrested for wearing a boycott button or having a sticker on your car” (Robinett wasn’t being tongue-in-cheek but rather referring to a 1972 Arizona law, passed in an attempt to weaken the UFW, that prohibited engaging in secondary boycotts). When Eloy lettuce workers went on strike against D’Arrigo Brothers in April 1973, the Food Conspiracy provided food and a donation of $100 a week, but members failed to turn out in force on the picket line. “The farmworkers came to us looking for bodies to picket for one day,” wrote morningstar about an April 3 rally, “Out of the thousands who shop and work at the conspiracy only TWO of us were present. And when er [sic] arrived and they heard we were from the Co-op they asked where everyone else was. Where were you?”

The newsletters also functioned as message boards, where members and workers debated various issues related to the co-op. Until it was temporarily re-branded Coyote in 1982, minutes from the food co-op meetings were printed in each issue, and often included a by-name summary of what those present committed to doing before the next meeting. The newsletter offered updates about other food co-ops opening in Tucson, including in the El Rio and Santa Rosa neighborhoods, and local cooperative businesses like Small Planet Bakery and Return to Forever bookstore. Articles, often written by members of the workers’ collective, implored patrons to treat the busy, overworked employees with respect, while letters to the editor and op-eds argued (year after year, issue after issue) over whether sugar should be sold in the store and which, if any, big business practices were acceptable to adopt.

As early as 1973, it seems that the Food Conspiracy was changing. “I hope those members of the co-op who believe the FC should provide good food at the lowest possible prices will attend the next general meeting Dec. 23 and demand that the decision be reconsidered,” Vince Peluso writes about his December 1973 resignation from the steering committee, driven by a markup increase for non-members from 10% to 15%, “Only in this way will the FC truly ‘serve the people’ and maintain our trust within the community.” The call for volunteers faded from print in late 1973 or early 1974. Issues dating to the late 1970s and early 80s are professionally laid-out newspapers and no longer have the scrappy, zine-like materiality of the earlier editions.

As I flipped through these later newsletters, I noticed that a greater focus on environmentalism and cultural events, including articles about local theater companies such as Teatro Libertad and the Invisible Theater, emerged between 1976 and 1983. While articles continued to chronicle and act as calls to action for the anti-nuclear movement, Central American solidarity movements, energy extraction struggles on Diné and Hopi land, and Take Back the Night marches, talk of revolution all but disappeared and these pieces increasingly shared space with articles like, “Before You Buy That Dream Home,” and a recipe feature that uncritically celebrated Thanksgiving. This change in content echoed larger political shifts: according to Belasco, the collapse of the Nixon administration “softened the sense of alienation from established political institutions” for many of the white, middle-class young people involved in the counterculture.[13] At least one issue of Coyote drifted further right, running a racist and anti-Indigenous screed on overpopulation by Edward Abbey. While reader Maria Abdin’s letter–in which she refuted his points and reminded Abbey that, “When the European colonists came here, they wiped out most of us, and drove the rest onto unfertile (for the most part) land–was printed in the following issue, it didn’t receive a reply from either Abbey or the editors.

The shift in newsletter content also reflects how the co-op was morphing as a project. “In its 11-year history, the Food Conspiracy has changed from a political party to a funky store to a big business,” writes John Barringer in “Food Conspiracy-Past, Present, Future,” published in Coyote in 1982. “More than before, the co-op needs its members to decide what it will become.” The Food Conspiracy was, from the beginning, a complicated and imperfect endeavor, but by the 1980s it was swept up in larger trends that would push co-ops founded in the 1960s and 70s away from their Leftist roots. According to Belasco, big business co-opted the language of the natural foods movement, supermarkets started stocking “granola, yogurt, sprouts, even tofu,” and gentrification meant that, “food-coops lost their leases to French bistros; communal farms became weekend retreats,” and the co-ops that survived did so by catering to primarily to affluent patrons.[14] By the turn of the twenty-first century, as Maria McGrath writes, “Natural foods consumerism … became a cultural and political middle ground” ripe for co-optation not just by political liberals, but by right wing back-to-the-landers and conservative Christians.[15]

Today, the Food Conspiracy is no longer run by a workers’ collective but under the auspices of a general manager. Rather than volunteering four hours a month to obtain membership and a set percentage discount each time you shop, “owners” pay a $180 annual fee and dividends are reimbursed at the end of the year based on how much you spend. It’s also too expensive for most Tucsonans to shop at: as someone with the privilege of easily affording groceries, the co-op’s prices are still far above my budget, and I only ever stop in to occasionally grab a natural soda or hard-to-find bulk herb. As gentrification sweeps Tucson once again—upscale housing developments are proliferating across the city, and median rents increased by 30% between June 2021 and June 2022—the Food Conspiracy is in the midst of a multi-million-dollar expansion plan, which will include a new entrance and additional parking spaces for their well-off customer base.[16] Even the description on the Food Conspiracy website erases its history, writing that the co-op, “was born in 1971, when a group of Tucson residents formed a buying club. These original members used their collective purchasing power to get natural food products, which were largely unavailable in stores at that time,” without mentioning the political context of the co-op’s founding.[17] It seems like the Food Conspiracy has gotten lost in the rice and bananas.

Now, other groups like Tucson Food Share (TFS) are drawing explicit connections between grocery distribution and mutual aid, and acting, as the early Food Conspiracy newsletter put it, as “conspirators against a political and economic system which rips off people for the basic necessity of food.” Much like the Food Conspiracy was born of the uprisings of the 1960s, TFS grew out of Tucson Food Not Bombs during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when mutual aid projects proliferated in the face of newly intensified housing, food, and economic insecurity. TFS distributes free produce and bulk goods out of their 2500 N. Stone Avenue headquarters, offers delivery to folks unable to pick up groceries, and hosts a free community dinner every Sunday evening. At a dinner in Fall 2022, TFS volunteers, neighbors, and guests piled plastic lunch trays high with homemade salad, lentils, and berry crumble, shoveling bites of food into their mouths between conversations about eviction defense and aquaculture.

In Summer 2020, then-fledgling TFS created a one-off zine, printed in Spanish and English, that includes recipes, resource lists, illustrations, and an article by Tucson Rent Strike.[18] “TFS is a volunteer-run collective that distributes groceries and other resources free of charge to anyone who is self-isolating, ill, out-of-work; is unable to afford groceries or access fresh food,” the introduction reads, in an echo of the food co-op’s call for members. “We’re inspired by the principles of mutual aid and believe that in times of crisis, our most reliable support comes from within our communities, and that we can share life-giving resources among ourselves.” The zine was distributed with TFS grocery deliveries when it was first published, its neon cover poking out from bags of beans and handfuls of spinach. But, like the Food Conspiracy newsletters of the early 1970s, the TFS zine is not just a once-useful document meant for Summer 2020 TFS participants. It’s also a record of the early days of a project born from a moment of crisis, at a time when the distribution of cheap and free food is once again broadly understood as a necessary step toward liberation and survival. Hopefully, as the years pass and the pressures of institutionalization grow, TFS can remain a non-hierarchical and non-corporate project committed to anti-capitalist mutual aid and food-based solidarity.

Photos: Food Conspiracy Newsletters, University of Arizona Special Collections. 

[1] Food Conspiracy Newsletters, 1972-1983, HD3286.T9 F6, University of Arizona Special Collections, Tucson, AZ.
[2] Jonathan Kauffman, Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat, (New York: William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 2019), 252.
[3] Warren J. Belasco, Appetite for Change, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007), 18.
[4] Kauffman, Hippie Food, 243-244.
[5] Belasco, Appetite for Change, 28.
[6] Kauffman, Hippie Food, 253.
[7] Evans, Mark B,  “1976 Citizen Article Recounts the 1970 Acrimony over El Rio Golf Course.” Tucson Citizen, August 23, 2013.
[8] Kauffman, Hippie Food, 5.
[9] Belasco, Appetite for Change, 28.
[10] Ibid., 33.
[11] Ibid., 30-31.
[12] Bud Foster. “A Troubled Tucson Park Will Get $3 Million Makeover.” KOLD. August 5, 2022. Accessed August 21, 2022. https://www.kold.com/2022/08/06/troubled-tucson-park-will-get-3-million-makeover/.
[13] Belasco, Appetite for Change, 106.
[14] Ibid., 108.
[15] Maria McGrath. Food for Dissent: Natural Foods and the Consumer Counterculture since the 1960s (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts, 2019), 169, 185-191.
[16] Brenda Muñoz Murguia, “Rent Hikes, Downtown Boom Spur Gentrification of Older Tucson Neighborhoods.” Arizona Mirror, June 30, 2022. https://www.azmirror.com/2022/06/30/rent-hikes-downtown-boom-spur-gentrification-of-older-tucson-neighborhoods/
[17] “About.” Food Conspiracy Co-op, December 17, 2021. https://foodconspiracy.coop/about/.
[18] Tucson Food Share. (July 2020). Tucson Food Share Zine. Full disclosure: I helped coordinate this zine.


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