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Food Coops: The Not-So-Happy Marriage of Organic Produce and Politics

In Brooklyn, the Park Slope Coop voted 1005 to 653 not to move forward on a controversial proposal to ban products from Israel Tuesday night.

The coop currently only carries a few items from the country, such as couscous, vegan marshmallows and organic paprika. Any approval of a ban would have been mostly symbolic.

The boycott attempt is part of an international lobbying effort against Israel, intended to pressure the country to withdraw from the Palestinian territories. Members will decide on Tuesday whether to proceed with coop-wide referendum on the proposal, and not on the boycott itself.

The 16,000 owner-member organization was divided about whether the charged foreign policy issue was welcome in the aisles of their beloved food-mecca. But it's not the only food coop to face this question.

“This is a really hard thing, but hard is not a reason not to do something,” said Jayne Kaszynski with the Olympia Food Coop in Washington State.

The board of Olympia's Food Coop approved a similar ban on products from Israel a year and a half ago.

Similar to the Park Slope Food Coop, Kaszynski said her coop is also a value-based organization. “What makes us different is that we look into deep issues around food.”

Olympia’s two stores also refrain from stocking products from China because of the country’s human rights polices.

But overall these types of boycotts may have limited foreign policy impact.

“I’m not sure they care,” said Amy Bentley, associate professor of Food Studies at New York University.  “It’s more of an internal feeling of ethics — some hope for a statement. Others care more for internal purity,” she said.

But Kaszynski noted her coop’s ban against Israeli products did cause an uproar, with Olympia's Food Coop being sued five members. She admits people still talk about the ban and disagree. The coop organized an event last year on anti-Semitism and Islam-phobia to delve further into the discussion around the boycott.  She said they’ll definitely be watching how the vote goes in Brooklyn.

“It's really interesting to us to see what's going to happen and to see how they are going to work with this tension between some of the feelings in their community and some of the values that they're based on,” she said.

NYU’s Bentley said the charged issue may come as a surprise to some, but for the most part, people join coops because they’re already thinking about food in a political way.

“People are seeking to opt out of the regular corporate stream…food is embedded in more than just nourishment,  including politics, ethnicity, gender and class,” Bentley said.