Along with food prices rising, there is a growing concern about the origin of produce, its air miles, seasonality, the rights of those who sow and harvest, to name a few. But with wages at a stagnant impasse it seems we’re at a disappointing juncture between knowledge and anxiety of the food available to us, but with little disposable cash to afford the better options.
There is an unusual solution on the horizon, inspired by the participatory culture of Airbnb and Uber, and the grassroots startups of fridge sharing and community gardening; food co-ops are providing a solution for affordable organic, local and unadulterated produce, in exchange for your time.
Food co-operatives stock all the same types of produce as your local corner shop, but are fundamentally pesticide free and closely sourced. Some even sell toiletries and household cleaners in a bid to be the only shop necessary to buy your wares. What sounds like the same sort of produce found at your local farm shop that would be sold with an average markup of 50%, the food in these co-ops is more in line with the prices of standard, pesticide filled produce from your nearest Sainsburys.
All of this is possible because they are run by the community for the community, without advertising, shelf fees and complex supply chains to manage. Consumers are instead members who pay a subscription fee and dedicate a few hours a month of labour for the right to buy products and vote on key decisions. Despite relatively low-profit margins, typically half that supermarkets charge, all of these conditions make produce that is luxury in branded stores, a more affordable price.
Food co-ops are not new and were once the mainstay of most towns across the industrialised world before 1930. But as branded stores swept across our urban areas, co-operatives fell to the cheap convenience provided. But with a population becoming weary of the individualistic culture plaguing our societies, this community-based approach to shopping is seeing a revival. In the United States, there are over 10’000 food co-ops, the most renowned being Park Slope in New York with over 15’000 members. There are a vast number of others around the world, including Park Slope-inspired La Louve in Paris, Alicante’s well-established bioTrèmol, Brussel’s Bee Co-op to name a few.
Food co-ops provide a fantastic and affordable solution to the heady profit margins on supermarket and traditional food shops organic produce. But can a low to no profit business model truly replace the hegemony that supermarkets have created across our high streets and industrial estates, who notoriously use their position to coerce suppliers into minimal returns?
Many members of co-operatives determine that it depends what you see as a profit. Where food co-ops reside quickly becomes a thriving community, with producers and members working together to support each other. Instead of a traditional business model that cuts corners to satisfy shareholders, co-operatives that are owned by its customers means that money, time and effort is all ploughed back into the business to benefit everyone.
With their kick-starter roots and decidedly buzz-wordy mission statements recalling the ‘sharing-economy’, food co-ops can be seen as a risky development into gentrification territory, with it bringing hordes of crunchy granola hipsters who fawn over the projects ‘authenticity’. But as the loss of dynamic variation of our high streets demonstrates, when the alternative is more branded supermarkets with unaffordable prices for good produce, perhaps we should be willing to open our arms to bearded strays and ‘good vibes’.