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How to set up a food co-op

We all want to eat well, yet most of us have to budget for our groceries like everything else. So what are the solutions? One way of reducing the cost of your food without having to cut down on essentials – or shopping at a discount supermarket full of cheap, imported goods – is to join a local community food co-op. If there isn’t one near you, then it’s surprisingly easy to set up one with a couple of like-minded friends or neighbours.

The idea with food co-ops is that by pooling buying power and ordering in bulk direct from suppliers, any group of people can buy food at more affordable prices. These food co-ops all have one thing in common: they are run by the community for the community, on a not-for-profit basis. However, each one is unique in the way they run and what they buy and sell, which depends on both the community they serve and the people who run it.

Some work by collecting orders from members in advance, while others operate like a ‘regular’ food business, ordering produce from suppliers and then selling on to members of the co-op through stalls, box schemes, shops or other outlets. Many sell fruit and vegetables, although others focus on organic wholefoods bought in bulk from suppliers which they then repackage into smaller bags; some sell eggs, meat, dairy or other foods sourced from local farms, small producers or community allotments. They run in schools, in community centres, village or church halls or from their own shops on a daily, weekly or even monthly basis.

The Southside Food Co-op in Bath offers people an opportunity to buy fresh, locally grown produce at sensible prices, with small bags of locally grown, seasonal veg starting at just £3.50 for single people including delivery (there’s a 50p discount if you can pick up from the office). They also run courses in basic cookery, giving participants the confidence and skills to cook simple healthy meals for themselves and their families, as well as a weekly produce market, enabling people in the area to swap or buy produce from local gardens and allotments.

(Tony from Southside Food Co-op is pictured unloading a delivery)

If there’s not a food co-op in your area, why not set up your own? You can check if there’s already one set up by looking at the Sustain website. Sustain is a national network, part of the Making Local Food Work initiative, which manages the Food Co-ops and Buying Groups Programme. Avon CDA is part of a national network of Co-operative Development and Support Organisations and aims to ‘promote the relevance and importance of co-operative businesses within the local economy,’ and ‘provide specific advice and assistance to enable people to establish new successful co-operative businesses’.

These two groups can give you all the information, advice and support you need; the Sustain website is particularly good on practical advice. A few friends, a couple of neighbours or a group of work colleagues are all you need.

Phil Rogers, founder member of Wells Organic Dried Foods, tells me: “The main reasons for setting up the co-op were to get organic, Fairtrade produce at a cheaper price, and also to shop less at the major supermarkets.”

Phil, a groundsman at the Blue School in Wells, set up the group after discovering that he and his then-partner could buy organic goods direct from a wholesaler for the same price as supermarket own-label basics. The members of Wells Organic Dried Foods met through their children – at playgroups and kindergartens – and the group has expanded as Phil has become involved with Transition Wells. “We had been buying our organics from Tesco but it was so expensive, so I did some research and found Suma,” he explains. “They make it really easy. All you need are two or three other people who want to buy. I place our order through their internet site. They’ll even package up individual orders so there’s no sorting out to do at this end.”

Essential Trading – itself a worker’s co-operative – has worked with food co-ops since 1971, and sells a number of leading vegetarian, vegan, organic and Fairtrade brands as well as own-label larder staples. To join Essential’s Friends and Neighbours plan you need a group of at least four households (and one single delivery address) to be able to buy direct from them in bulk.

“Many people want to buy ethically but find it difficult to meet the needs of their household within their budget,” says Eli Sarre, marketing co-director for Essential Trading. “While more and more retailers are stocking ethical options for certain foods, it’s by no means a comprehensive choice everywhere and prices can put people off. With our friends and neighbours scheme people can club together to place bulk orders and enjoy ethical food at very fair prices.”

Southside Food Co-op tel 01225 442813

Written by Darryl Bullock

Published in The Spark issue 58 - autumn 2009

Details correct at time of going to press but may now have changed - please make your own checks

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