Co-operation is all about a few people joining forces together to do things that by themselves they are not able to do.
When the Rochdale Equitable Society opened the first co-operative shop on the 21st December 1844, those pioneers motivation was, “selling pure (i.e. healthy) food, fair price and honest weight and measures”. Their vision was rooted in the conviction that a different way to respond to the needs of their community was possible and, that coming together, people could work to mutual benefit. That shop in 31 Toad Lane, Rochdale is regarded as the birthplace of the co-operative movement, and its objectives formed the basis of the principles and values now spread and maintained by the International Co-operative Alliance.
Similarly, todays’ people are getting together to buy food that they want and cannot widely access. Many buying clubs such as SUMA groups, are often run from neighbour’s kitchens. The purchasing power of the group makes food more affordable. Vegetable and fruit box schemes are now available and reduce the distance between growers and consumers. These schemes also help the growers to predict what they need to grow to satisfy their loyal members/customers and reinforce demand for fresh, naturally grown local food.
Co-operation does not stop at purchasing or producing food, it is also about community-driven projects to save public spaces or services. For example, the Loughmore Community Co-operative Shop is a community run grocery store in North Tipperary with a teahouse for the locals to meet and socialise. The shop now sells local produce, arts and crafts including homemade breads, cakes, jams, conserves, honey, and locally grown vegetables. This co-operative began with the support of local people who bought €10 shares to get the venture up and running.
Co-operation is also essential for reducing food poverty and improving health and well-being. Take for example The People’s Supermarket. This co-operative operates in a deprived area of London and has grown a membership where four volunteering hours per month gives members 20% discounts on their shopping. The supermarket has now a People’s Kitchen and pop-up supper events involving local suppliers and the surrounding community.
Even the Rochdale Pioneers had in mind more than food when they set up their first shop. The objectives of their co-operative were not only “the establishment of a store” but also “building a number of houses” for its members, “to create employment” and rent or purchase an estate of land “to be cultivated by the members”.
In our present days, food co-operatives could still be the centre of an alternative network that connects urban communities to the local farming communities, creates jobs, and educates about growing opportunities and food in general, and open spaces to community use.
Tiziana O'Hara is a founder member of Co-operative Alternatives.