Sacramento food co-op becomes battleground over Israeli products

Reporting from Sacramento -- Its aisles brimming with a rainbow of ripe organic produce, bins of grains and refrigerators stocked with soy everything, the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op has long been an oasis of civility in this combative city.

Democrats and Republicans may quarrel at the Capitol a few miles away, but here they break gluten-free bread, munch on kale chips and sip acai juice in blissful bipartisan harmony: “Peace, love and granola,” said Republican strategist Donna Lucas, a proud co-op member.

But now politics has intruded on their sanctuary.

A small band of members pushed the co-op board to strip store shelves of Israeli-made items, arguing that Israel represses its Palestinian population and the co-op should take a stand. They collected signatures and demanded a referendum on the issue, but the board said no. So the activists launched a campaign to take over some board seats. Votes will be tallied Saturday.


Susan Bush, one of the rebel board candidates, says the battle is about more than Israel. The co-op is suppressing voices, acting corporate, she says. Soon it could be “selling Coca-Cola, for God’s sake.”

The co-op’s political elite has responded in rare bipartisan form and with all the trappings of a full-on electoral fight: membership drives, a get-out-the-vote operation, a Facebook page, even phone banks.

“We know how to do elections,” said Barry Broad, a Democrat and blue-chip union lobbyist by day, socks-and-sandals co-op member by night.

The brick-walled cooperative, with more than 12,000 member-owners, traces its roots back nearly four decades. It twice outgrew its confines and then landed in a quiet east Sacramento neighborhood in 1989. But with only about 50 parking spaces and $26 million in annual sales, it’s almost bursting at the seams again.

Inside are floor-to-ceiling collections of rice cakes and vegan fare. The poultry comes fattened on vegetarian feed. The stuff can be pricey, but people aren’t here looking for bargains.

Standing in the wellness aisle, general manager Paul Cultrera couldn’t remember which Dead Sea bath salts were which. Some are evaporated in Jordan, he explains. Those aren’t troublesome. The ones dredged on the Israeli side are.

Cultrera said revenue from Israeli-produced goods is a relatively meager $15,000 annually. The products include ice cream cones (gluten-free, organic and vegan), two types of matzo and, during the Jewish holidays, some kosher wine.

Outside, the protesters and the political pros have been squaring off for months. On a warm summer day, protesters lined the sidewalk, tambourines in tow, making their case to the tune of “This Land Is Your Land.”

“This is my co-op, this is your co-op, we are member ow-ners, our voices ma-tter,” they sang. “This co-op belongs to you and me.”

Maggie Coulter, a state retiree and organic gardener, spearheaded the call for a boycott. The financial stake may be small, Coulter said, but the symbolism is huge. It could even, she said, push Israel to change its policies, one American food cooperative at a time.

Similar battles have flared at co-ops across the nation: in Brooklyn, N.Y. (still going), Ann Arbor, Mich. (boycott rejected), Olympia, Wash. (boycott adopted). They’re loosely linked through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement modeled after the old anti-apartheid boycotts. The goal, says the group’s website, is to pressure Israel to “end its occupation” of Palestine.

“My hope is that we can have an end to human rights violations in the world,” Coulter said.

The food fight has sometimes been less than peaceful. Coulter was scolded for harassing customers, and after a parking-lot scuffle with co-op president Steve Maviglio, the police warned her not to trespass.

“She’s still a co-owner,” Cultrera said, his lips curling into a small smile. “She just can’t come to the store.”

In her stead, Bush stood outside one recent day, handing out yellow campaign brochures. In blue sweats and her hair in two thin, gray pigtails, she peered across the parking lot at Maviglio and conjured up as strong a rebuke as she could: “They’re downtown politicians.”

It was scorching hot, and Maviglio, a Democratic strategist, was busy leafleting. He had spent 11 of his otherwise highly billable hours doing the same thing earlier that week. He’d be there again the next day, and the day after that.

He was new to foodie activism after a career spent advising Gov. Gray Davis, two past Assembly speakers and presidential campaigns. He also served six years in the New Hampshire state Legislature. He assumed the co-op presidency earlier this year when his predecessor moved out of town.

Trying to quash the protest, he activated a network of political insiders. He crossed party lines to recruit Julie Soderlund, who helped manage Republican Carly Fiorina’s run for U.S. Senate last year and had worked for former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

A longtime fan of the kale and beet salad, Soderlund joined to vote for Maviglio’s side. The problem with boycotts, she and others said, is where to draw the line. At China’s policies toward Tibet? Or Arizona’s immigration laws? California’s refusal to let gays marry?

Broad has scooped up supporters, too, recruiting 250 new members by canvassing from synagogue to synagogue. He has spent evenings phoning them with reminders to vote. And he orchestrated a “buycott” that emptied co-op shelves of Israeli goods. (The store, seizing on the rush of sales, quickly restocked, and Broad is stuck with a surplus of bath salts.)

The lobbyist has locked horns with big business, Republicans and even fellow Democrats. But they don’t compete with the co-op’s outliers, he says: “These people are more tenacious.”

As he spoke, he pawed a copy of “Eve of Destruction,” a novel he wrote about a fictional Iran American nuclear standoff. It features an Israeli Mossad agent who works to stop terrorists from detonating a dirty bomb in Los Angeles.

Vote-getting is an imprecise art, and Broad is nervous. He sees any toehold for the anti-Israel group — it’s seeking two board seats now; the other five will come open later — as a major defeat.

Likewise Maviglio, who shakes his head at the irony of it all.

“I signed up to talk heirloom tomatoes,” he said. “All of a sudden we’re supposed to be the U.N?”