Taking a look at food co-operatives in Essex and beyond, with Gemma Sayers, the East’s food co-op and buying group adviser
The first ever Co-operatives Fortnight culminating in International Co-operatives Day took place on Saturday 3rd July 2010. A national campaign to raise awareness of co-operation: calling for people to work together as individuals, colleagues, communities and businesses.
You may not know of any co-operatives in Essex other than the Co-op retail stores, but as an adviser I have come across many food co-ops running independently, based on the principle of mutual aid and the need for affordable, healthy, local foodstuffs.
These co-ops provide an essential service to their members, and deserved to be celebrated as part of the Fortnight!
What is a Food Co-op?
A food co-op is a way for a group of people to get the food they want by pooling buying power and sourcing directly from producers. Cutting out the ‘middleman’ like this means that fresh, healthy, local and even organic or fairtrade foods can be obtained affordably, or in places where no other outlet exists.
Food co-operatives bring increased wellbeing, empowerment and aspiration to those involved in running them – people taking control of their food supply for community benefit feel confident in applying the same principle in other areas of their lives.
Food co-ops in Essex
Since coming into post in December 2009 I’ve found five Essex communities operating community food co-ops or buying groups. Two of these I’ve managed to map on the Food Co-ops Finder website and provide support to, whilst the other three seem happy to get on with their own thing. If you’re reading this as a member of either of the Wivenhoe Buying Groups, or the one based at University of Essex, let me know how you’re getting on!
Fruit and Veg Together is the first enterprise I visited, back in January. They are based in St Mark’s Church Hall in the heart of Southend, an area severely lacking in greengrocers, from what I saw. It started when Transition Westcliff member Eleanor decided she wanted to do something for her community to build a sense of belonging.
Eleanor welcomed me with a cup of tea and explained that the co-op is run as an organic fruit and vegetable bag scheme, where members order their bags in advance for collection the next week. Trading in the morning alongside a toddlers’ group and in the afternoon during an after-school session, the co-op makes it easier for parents going about their daily routine to pick up a healthsome bag of seasonal produce. This counters the idea that it’s easier to get all your shopping in one go at the supermarket.
The produce – including carrots, onions, potatoes, greens, salads – is bought in bulk from a regional veg box retailer, and delivered to Eleanor’s home, down the road from the hall. A true dedicate, every week Eleanor sorts the vegetables into individual orders, packs them in used carrier bags, and transports them to the hall in the buggy containing her own toddler!
Since all produce is bought in bulk, the food co-op can transfer major savings on to customers – a bag costs only £3 and contains the majority of vegetables a household will need for a week’s meals. The low cost of a bag is mostly covered by a Healthy Start voucher, which the scheme accepts as payment, throwing out the misperception that organic food is a luxury, or only for the well off.
Fruit and Veg Together has featured in the Transition Books’ publication “Local Food: How to Make it Happen in Your Community’ in the chapter on Food Co-operatives.
After visiting Eleanor I walked to the Growing Together Gardens near Priory Park and met the new manager Jeanette. In conversation, It was discovered that the gardens would like more opportunity to sell their surplus this summer, and so I suggested the food co-op as an outlet. Both parties were enthusiastic! Many community growing projects link up with consumer co-operatives; it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement since the small and irregular volumes they produce wouldn’t meet conventional buyers’ criteria, but co-ops are often delighted with ultra-seasonal, ultra-local offerings.
I’m proud to say Fruit n Veg Together was my first addition to theFood Co-ops Finder map in the East of England! At the time, that brought the grand total to two. However, now the total is ten existing entreprises, with at least ten more in existence who don’t wish to be mapped and seven more in development.
If you want to join Eleanor’s scheme, you can look it up on our website or contact her on 07748 583 418 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nipping inland, Felicity from the Witham Buying Group contacted me looking for advice on recruiting new members in her area. This group has been going since 1994, and Felicity’s involvement was born out of her commitment as a campaigner against ‘the unnatural elements of our lives’.
As a Wholefood Buying Group, it operates on a less frequent basis, as they buy products that have a long shelf life. Orders are made bi-monthly from Community Foods, a pioneering organic and fair-trade wholesaler in North London.
Felicity collates the order each time using the wholesale catalogue and receives the delivery to her own garage, whereupon the other customers collect their personal goods. Anything from the catalogue may be ordered, and the catalogue is vast! So are the quantities you can buy in – can you imagine 16kg of chickpeas in your pantry? Divide that between six friends though, and you’ve got your two months’ supply!
The Witham group uses a much more widespread model than Fruit n Veg Together – at almost every event I’ve attended this year I’ve met somebody who’s a member of a Wholefood Buying Group. That’s because it’s very easy to start one up, low maintenance, and very convenient for both buyer and seller. You don’t need any start-up capital or a bank account– each member can write a cheque paying for their portion of the order. All you have to do is contact the wholesaler that covers your area – and there’s a limited number, their details are on our website below – and ask to set up an account. All the wholesalers deliver weekly, you just have to make up their minimum order; usually around £250. If there’s a retail outlet that they’re already supplying near you, they may decline but then you can always contact the shop instead, and ask if you can get discounts if you place large orders with them.
Perhaps you and your friends would like to take advantage of this kind of sales relationship? If you live near Witham, contact Felicity at LONDAF1@aol.com. If not, Community Foods is certainly looking to increase the number of Buying Groups it supplies across Essex, so get in touch!
Support I can offer
My role is part of the Food Co-ops strand of the Making Local Food Work programme, funded by the Big Lottery. The programme aims to increase awareness of the benefits of eating local by strengthening the relationships between farmers and consumers. Eating local supports the local economy whilst reducing its impact on the environment. In addition locally sourced food is tastier, has higher vitamin content because it travels less, and buying it helps to keep farming and growing skills alive.
I’d like to hear from any individual, group or organisation who’s interested in buying collectively in order to get good food at cheaper prices. Free advice is available on everything you might need to know about setting up a food co-op, both as one-to-one, and via ‘How To’ workshops and training days, exchange visits to other co-ops, and regional networking events. The project produced a food co-ops toolkit with lots of useful advice which is available on-line atwww.sustainweb.org/foodcoopstoolkit
There is specialised advice available for existing groups on governance, sustainability, marketing, co-operative principles and practice, and I can offer free leaflets and banners to promote food co-ops.
In addition there is a national Food Co-ops Finder map at www.foodcoops.org where you can search for your nearest food co-op, so if you’re an existing group you can add your details on to the website and if you want to find others near you that want to form a food co-op, this can be used as first point of call!
The target is to help establish at least a hundred new food co-ops nationally – so let’s make the East of England the ‘Bread Basket (or Fruit basket) of Britain’ again!
|Gemma Sayers was instrumental in setting up Ipswich Ripple Food Co-operative, a public food co-op in Ipswich www.ipswichfoodcoop.co.uk
The Food Co-ops and Buying Groups programme is managed by Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, as part of the Making Local Food Work programme. For more information contact Maresa Bossano email@example.com 020 7837 1228www.foodcoops.org
Sustain advocates food and agriculture policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals, improve the working and living environment, promote equity and enrich society and culture. To find out more about our work visit our websitehttp://www.sustainweb.org
The Making Local Food Work programme is run by partnership of organisations including Sustain, the Soil Association, Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), Country Markets Ltd, Co-operatives UK, National Farmers’ Retail & Markets Association (FARMA) and is managed by the Plunkett Foundation. To find out more about Making Local Food Work visit http://www.makinglocalfoodwork.co.uk/