| 1st April 2005
You do if… you live in an area where healthy food is either non-existent or too expensive. This is likely to be the case if your only ‘local’ food shopping option is a supermarket, and you have no good small independent local shops, farmers’ markets or box schemes serving your area.

There are food deserts all over Britain, in rural as well as urban areas. ‘It’s not just a matter of there being no shops,’ says Elizabeth Dowler, a sociologist at Warwick University. ‘Often there are shops. But these tend to be meagre, run-down shops which sell little or no fresh food.’ For example, a recent study of Sandwell, West Bromwich, found that around 90 per cent of the households in the area were within 500 metres of shops that sold junk food and fizzy drinks; less than 20 per cent of the houses were within 500 metres of a shop selling fresh fruit and vegetables. This can be attributed largely to the steady increase in the number of supermarkets in Britain since the 1970s and the commensurate decline in the number of independent grocers. Around 80 per cent of food shopping is now done in supermarkets, compared with less than 50 per cent 25 years ago.


Armed with little more than a wholesale catalogue, you can save yourself from a diet of overly processed and packaged foods. By grouping together with like-minded people living in the same block of flats, street or neighbourhood and buying in bulk, anyone can eat organic, sustainably produced food at affordable prices – even if they live in a food desert.

What’s more, buying good food in bulk means reduced packaging and supporting a huge network of small-scale suppliers and producers. Also, items get delivered to within feet of your door. Before you set up a new food-buying group in your area, see if there’s one already established near you that you could join. To find out if there is, call the list of wholesalers [below] to see if any of them can put you in touch with an existing local food group. If not, follow the instructions below.


STEP 1 Form a group

Food-buying groups come in all shapes and sizes. What they have in common is that they buy regularly from their chosen wholesaler and in sufficient quantity to meet the wholesaler’s minimum order limit.

STEP 2 Agree a place and time to meet
You will need to agree a place to meet regularly, where you can all ‘build the order’, and a single address where the food can be delivered to. The latter is usually in the home of someone who has room to store the food before it is collected by group members. Ideally, it would be somewhere that is easy accessible for the delivery vehicle.

STEP 3 Set up a buying account with a wholesaler
Use our directory to find a wholesaler covering your region. Telephone and tell them that you want to set up a food group. They all operate on a very similar basis, but it is worth bearing in mind a few important

  • Wholesalers don’t want to sell to groups that will only order once or twice before stopping. You’ll need to demonstrate that your group is well organised and prepared to buy regularly.
  • Wholesalers don’t want food groups to undermine their retail trade, the mainstay of which is small local shops running on small mark-ups. If you are living in a food desert this shouldn’t be an issue. To make the processing easier, wholesalers demand single orders from groups; not a collection of individual orders. Wholesalers require payment on delivery. No credit is granted to food groups.

STEP 4 Suggested ways to run the group

  • Agree a regular date for ordering(monthly or bimonthly is usual).
  • Appoint someone to be in charge of placing the order, receiving and paying for the goods. This responsibility can be rotated around the group after each order.
  • Meet on the agreed ordering date (for smaller groups it can be done over the telephone). Take the individual orders and combine them into one big order. Some horse-trading might be required to meet minimum order sizes, with larger packs being split amongst the members into smaller more manageable quantities.
  • Calculate the price of each member’s order, and work out a time and way of paying for your order and levelling the finances (when you order, when you collect, etc). There is no set way, but it is important everyone is happy with the system.
  • Place the order. Agree with your wholesaler how best to do this.
  • Find out when the order will be delivered, and ensure you have the money ready for payment. Some groups set up a bank account, and pay from that. Others use the account of one member, who is reimbursed by all the others.
  • On receipt of the produce, the food will have to be split up into each member’s individual order so that it can then be easily collected.

Enjoy the change in shopping habits and its benefits: recognise the positive environmental effects of reduced packaging and reduced travel, and make the most of the community and social benefits of interacting at a new level with your neighbours and workmates.

So you think the nation’s cheapest ‘value’ supermarket can’t be beaten for price? Well, take a look at The Ecologist’s price comparison table [below]. By comparing the prices from the Suma January/ February 2005 catalogue with those of Tesco’s online store, we found that food-group shopping can save you a staggering 29 per cent on your organic food.

Tea, 80 bags £1.72 £1.99
Muesli, 500 grams 1.20 £2.49
Extra virgin olive oil, 500 millilitres £2.99 £2.49
Cane sugar, 500 grams £1.12 89p
Penne pasta, 500
70p 99p
Pasta sauce £1.16(440 grams) 59p (420 grams)
Baked beans 59p (420 grams) 59p (415 grams)
Toilet tissue, four rolls £1.27 £1.49 (no recycled version available)
Non-bio laundry liquid,
1.5 litres
£2.76 £3.82
Refuse sacks £0.77 (recycled plastic, roll of eight) £1.89 (degradable, 10 bags)
TOTAL £14.28 £18.42

Each member of the group will need a copy of the wholesaler’s catalogue to use in forming their order.

  • Think of the general supplies you use regularly, and work out the quantity of these goods you will use over the order period. After a couple of orders you should have a good idea of what you and how much you require.
  • Wholesalers stock a huge variety of products, so try and expand your eating habits. If someone wants half a pack of something you don’t usually have, then offer to buy the other half and try something different.
  • Staples such as flour, sugar, grains, pulses, muesli, salt, herbs, oil and detergents can be bought either in bulk quantities of prepackaged goods, or in larger containers of loose goods. Bulk, loose staples are cheap and save on packaging.
  • Depending on demand, loose goods can be purchased to be split among the group or for individual use. Consider buying your own reusable storage containers for bulk loose goods, which generally have extended shelf lives and, if properly stored, can be used over considerable periods of time.

Why not set up as a structured and formally trading food-buying cooperative? UK Cooperatives, the nationwide umbrella organisation for cooperative enterprises, has a food-buying cooperative model. Contact UK Cooperatives’ legal services team on 0161 246 2900 ( welcome.asp). Co-ops with a social or charitable purpose (e.g., a community co-op bringing quality food at reduced prices to poorer areas), or with a commitment to community living, are strongly supported by wholesalers. Formally trading community food-buying cooperatives running on minimal profits can be a hugely effective way of bringing healthy and sustainable foods to socially deprived areas.

These wholesalers sell sustainably produced organic, vegetarian and wholefood produce, and also other household goods with low environmental impact. All have ethical policies governing their trading (see their websites for details). Some also work as cooperatives and
promote the social benefits of such enterprises.

Goodness Wholefoods
01327 706611
 £200-£350 minimum order
depending on area
0845 458 2290
West Yorks
 £200 minimum order  Nationwide
  Essential Trading
01179 583550
 £200 minimum order   Nationwide
 Infinity Foods
01273 424060
East Sussex
 £350 minimum order   Southeast
 Green City Wholefoods,
0141 5547 633
 £150-£200 minimum order.
Groups must register as food
co-ops. Green City has a food
co-op policy to regulate this
aspect of its trade (see web).
 Lembas Wholefoods
0845 458 1585
 £200 minimum order North and midlands
Rainbow Wholefoods
01603 630484
 North and midlands
 Rainbow Wholefoods
01603 630484
 £150  East Anglia


This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2005

For ethical and sustainable suppliers of Food and Drink goods and services check out the Ecologist Green Directory here



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