Local food-buying cooperatives, or food co-ops, are becoming more popular as communities opt out of supermarket shopping in favour of more affordable alternatives to buying fresh produce.
The main principle behind community food co-ops is that by ordering food in bulk direct from suppliers, groups of people can buy their fresh, locally grown food cheaper. These food cooperatives usually take the shape of retail stores or buying clubs, and are predominately worker or customer owned businesses.
There's nothing new about the concept. The 1970s saw a boom in food co-ops due to the growing health foods movement and concerns about poor quality processed foods. In recent years many community-based food co-ops have also been set up to make it easier for people on low incomes, or those living in areas with few shops, to access more affordable fruit and vegetables.
The Sustain Food Co-ops Toolkit
Until recently there weren't many practical resources available for those considering starting a food co-op or being a part of one.
'The aim is to make it easier for more local communities to set up their own food co-ops by providing guidance and useful documents,' said Maresa Bossano, the Food Co-ops project officer.
Food co-ops are often faced with many challenges such as rent, equipment, insurance, and product wastage. This is where the toolkit comes in handy, providing guidance, tips, and documents relating to developing a needs assessment, equipment needed, funding, sourcing produce, facilities, and permits.
More information and the toolkit can be found here
Making local food work: three examples of Food co-ops
Ipswich Food Co-operative
Until the Ipswitch Food Co-op formed in 2007, residents of Ipswich had to drive miles to Suffolk to access organic, healthy, vegetarian or locally produced foods.
'This seemed absurd considering we're the county town, therefore the most numerous in population and variety of dietary needs,' says Gemma, a founder member.
'We found several neighbourhood groups ordering from Suma to their living rooms and then divvying the products up to benefit from wholesale pricing; we thought it would be better for this process to be made public.'
It is no longer necessary for locals to drive long distances to buy their fresh produce. The food co-operative, now boasting about 50 members, order their food in bulk fortnightly from independent whole food wholesaler Suma, while the rest of the goods are bought locally. The group then set up shop every second Saturday in the Salvation Army Hall.
Run by and for local people in the community, each member simply pays a £12 joining fee that entitles them to discounts on food ordered through the co-operative.
Greenwich Community Food Co-op (GCFC)
'One of our principal aims is to boost people's consumption of fruit and vegetables, particularly of people on low incomes,' said Matthew Stiles from the Greenwich Community Food Co-op.
In 2002, the Greenwich community carried out a needs assessment to identify the food access barriers affecting them. The GCFG was then formed to provide the more disadvantaged areas of Greenwich with improved access to affordable fruit and vegetables.
Once a week the GCFC runs eight market stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables in different areas of the Borough of Greenwich.
'All of these stalls are in poorer parts of the borough, often on council estates that have few, if any shops,' said Matthew.
In view of their aim, the GCFC continue to reach into the community.
They do not restrict produce to members, and keep prices as low as possible. This is made possible by sourcing most of its bulk produce from the Spitalfields Wholesale Market every week, although they aim to increase their sales of regionally grown produce.
'We believe that consumption of fruit and vegetables for people on low incomes has increased due to easier access and also due to the lower prices that we charge as compared to supermarkets.'
True Food Co-operative, Reading
Chris Aldridge, Director of the True Food Co-operative in Reading, does not need to look far to see what it is doing for the community.
'Helping form and becoming an active member of a co-op develops the individual and community alike. All manner of opportunities arise, including voluntary participation, employment, networking, fairer trading, independence and education.'
What started out as an informal buying group is now an organisation which now runs an average of five organic markets a week and has a membership of over 120.
Every weekday and Saturday, the True Food Co-op operates indoor markets from different community centers in the Reading area. The markets, which are open to everyone, sell a range of wholefoods and groceries, most of which is sourced from local growers and artisan producers.
Find your local food-coop:
For ethical and sustainable suppliers of Food and Drink goods and services check out the Ecologist Green Directory here
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