Local Filmmaker Hits the Road to Speak for Community Co-ops

The Recorder, November 15,2015 by Richie Davis.

Filmmaker Steve Alves is on a roll again, raising money once more for his documentary, “Food for Change.”

But this time, the campaign for the 2013 film that began as a short promo for Green Fields Market has taken the Turners Falls filmmaker on the road to share the work with groups from Montreal to Southern California, from the Pacific Northwest to the Florida panhandle, feeding an appetite for new co-ops and social change.

And now, after raising $300,000 for the documentary that won Alves a United Nations International Year of Cooperation award for a 15-minute version in 2012, he plans to ramp up use of social media to use the film to help address issues like income disparity, wealth disparity and food justice just in time for the 2016 presidential election.

Built around Franklin County’s local co-op success story, with opening shots of Green Fields and those of the 1977 Montague Food Co-Op that spawned it, Food for Change grew out of a 2007 conversation with GFM marketing Suzette Snow-Cobb suggesting a way of explaining the store’s role in the community and the wider cooperative movement.

But Alves, who recalls the original concept as a training film for employees, delved into the social history of co-ops back to the mid-19th century and their renaissance in the 1930s and 1970s, and saw it as a deeper story, connecting with his 2004 “Talking to the Wall: The Story of an American Bargain.” The themes of income inequality, corporate monopoly and corruption in that earlier film about Wal-Mart took on a societal resonance after the 2008, and Alves saw the potential for a bigger story.
“I couldn’t have made this film if I didn’t make ‘Talking to the Wall,’” he reflects, “because that gave me a really deep understanding of the issues that gave rise to co-ops back in the 19th century, and that really have to do with issues that are still so strong today: disproportionate distribution of wealth by the people that create wealth, and those who don’t receive their fair share of the proceeds. It’s essentially about the tendency towards the concentration of power, and … the rise of monopolies and food powers,” with really large retailers controlling their suppliers.

After a series of film showings with uneven attendance, Alves helped Northampton’s River Valley Market in February 2014 raise $2 million with a benefit showing at the Academy of Music that drew 250 people and saw that the film could be used to show people that a co-op isn’t just a place to buy groceries; it’s a way of empowering people to realize they can change their situation if they band together.

A year ago, Alves traveled 9,000 miles in a single month, to places like Long Beach, Calif., where a campaign to build its first food co-op is trying to raise money with a crowd-sourcing Internet campaign that uses “Food for Change” as a key motivational tool on its website.

“You see a lot of these organic food markets mostly opening up in more affluent neighborhoods, and in my opinion it needs to be in a less affluent neighborhood where it’s really needed,” Santiheo Monoya, one man attending a Long Beach showing film tells an interviewer in a video on the site, followed by the local campaign director Damon Lawrence adding, “Most people think coops are something that happened in the ’70s, like a little hippie thing. … Co-ops have a rich history in the United States.”

“It’s fun to wake up in the morning and feel connected to folks across the country trying to do this sort of thing,” said Alves, whose Hometown Productions has also produced documentaries about sugaring, contra-dancing and “life after high school” and explains that his goal is now trying to raise $150,000 for additional marketing isn’t about filling his own pockets but rather to spread the word about “Food for Change” and its themes, which he believes in.

While making the film ­— which he re-released this January in a tighter version, now packaged with supplemental materials to startup co-ops and sees potential for college and even high-school courses on social change — Alves realized that he could also tell a positive story about social struggle.

“There’s a big interest in healthy food, so the film gets embraced by people who care about healthy food,” he said. “You’re not going to get any more authentic vigilance for the healthiness of good quality food than you’ll get from a food co-op,” which promote local, small-scale producers.

“Back in the ’70s, you had this group of several thousand people, initially, who were willing to say, ‘We don’t want pesticide-laden food. Nobody really thought about it that much, and none of the big chains were willing to put pressure on their growers,” Alves reflected, and create the market for what’s now an organic food industry.

But co-ops like those in Greenfield, Northampton, Brattleboro, Vt., and now Keene, N.H., also face tremendous competition from giant chains like Wal-Mart, which has become the largest seller of organic foods. Alves hopes to convey to even the vast majority of their members a better understanding of how co-ops are embedded in their communities and “represent a true desire to sell healthy food and take on some of the bigger issues, like battling genetically modified foods.

To do that, he’s sending out an online newsletter to a mailing list of about 2,000, has a “Food for Change” Facebook page whose viewers that he plans to grow and intends to let his film be shown for free for 18 months beginning next Oct. 1 — just in time for the national election.
With $98,000 of his goal still to be raised, he plans to make Food For Change available to watch for free for a period of eighteen months starting on October 1, 2016. Among his plans are a new film trailer along with 15-second spot commercials announcing next fall’s online release, hiring writers to piggyback on election-year issues with articles about co-ops, spurring co-op articles by other media, along with Alves’ own radio and television interviews.

There’s also a Spanish-language version of the documentary for which he’s already getting inquiries.

Alves, who’s built relationships with more than 200 co-ops around the country and sees college and high school sustainability groups and other organizations with interest in the subject, also hopes for release of clips from the film with the potential to “go viral,” with continuous feeds from the film to Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter, articles sent to co-op newsletters around the country and what he calls “continuous and persistent attention to promotional opportunities” based on themes surfacing through national political discussion.

“I want to do it all,” said Alves. “I want to have the means at my disposal to do a six-month campaign to build interest not just for the film, but for all issues that are in the film. I’m thinking I’m going to have just so much fun with it.”

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You can reach Richie Davis at or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269