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Food Group Case Studies – Crumbs

Food co-operatives

I am not a radical person. I eat porridge. I wear slippers. They are covered in woolly polka dots. But I am a radical shopper. Or more to the point, I buy much of my food from a radical co-operative, Suma.
So as I scroll down my shopping list, clicking on tinned chickpeas and dried apricots (organic, of course) I feel a frisson of excitement. Who knew that buying your Ecover toilet cleaner could be such a thrill?

And not only is it thrilling, it’s also cheap. I’d say it’s about a third cheaper than the supermarket. To buy from the radical co-operative I formed a food co-operative myself. It’s basically a bunch of my neighbours who are as keen on lentils and biodegradable baby wipes as me. We buy from Suma Wholesale but food co-operatives can buy from anywhere; a farm or a greengrocer. It just means that by buying in bulk you have a chance to negotiate on price and bypass the supermarket. Sustain has a great website about all the different types of co-operatives and how to get started. Here is a quick overview for you.

What is a food co-operative?

You might have heard of them before. I think they got popular in the 70s, when a few lone hippies who wanted to eat lentils would get together and buy a 5 kilo bag and split it, because they couldn’t get them in the local shops. It’s changed a bit over the years. The People’s Supermarket is a food co-operative. But what me and my neighbours do is on a much smaller scale. There are about six households and we do a big shop together once every month or two. We shop from Suma as it delivers to our area regularly, and sells the type of things that we want. Baby wipes, Ecover products, lentils, tins of tomatoes, bags of nuts, herbal tea, essentially different types of dried goods (the oats, nuts, lentils, rice etc pictured above is all from Suma). It’s not dissimilar to sharing a supermarket shop but you don’t just buy one tin of tomatoes, you buy a tray of 12. You don’t have to bulk buy everything, they will split packs for you, but generally you are buying a kilo of nuts, or 3 kilos of muesli, which are good quantities when you are feeding a family. On average I’d say the produce costs about two thirds of what you pay at the supermarket, but because it is good quality stuff it’s not always cheaper than the supermarket basic ranges. E.g the cheapest pine nuts at Tesco are £2.59 per 100g. A kilo of pine nuts at Suma cost £18.75., so £1.87 per 100g. On the other hand a tin of cherry tomatoes from Tesco costs 74p, and the organic equivalent at Suma also costs 74p. So sometimes it’s not actually cheaper but you are getting a better quality equivalent.

How does it work?

Once every month or two one of the group (it’s fluid, we invite anyone local, who looks like they may eat lentils or nuts to join!) realises they have virtually no food in the house and Facebook messages the rest of us to ask if we want to do a shop. Generally we all need to stock up on something. We each do an online shop and it automatically itemises what each individual has spent so there are no queries about who owes what. Then, at the end of the week an enormous lorry, driven by the lovely Bill, pulls up outside the house of whoever instigated the shop and delivers all the goods. Then it’s up to the rest of us to go round as soon as possible and pick our stuff up. No-one wants to be tripping over boxes of camomile tea for a week, so we need to pick it up quickly. At the same time we pick up our invoices and then individually ring up Suma and pay.

What are the pros?

Good food at a great price and I don’t have to go anywhere near a Lidl or Aldi! I can do all the ordering from the comfort of my living room and delivery is free. It’s also a friendly thing to do. You get to know your neighbours (and their shopping habits) a bit better. It’s a great thing to do with other families because you all get through so much food, so there’s always someone who wants to do a shop when you do.

What are the cons?

You have to buy in bulk. Generally I split packets with my neighbours. I’ve just negotiated two packs of Nairns oatcakes from one neighbour. But you can also call Suma and explain you only want 2 packs of tea, rather than a box of six. Another issue is where to store it. Not everyone has a kitchen where they can store 36 tins of tomatoes. As all the goods are dried I usually store the overspill up in the loft, other people use their shed or cellar.
Occasionally people fall out about money. This hasn’t happened to us, Suma’s itemised inventory puts an end to that, but I can see that it would be a pitfall.

That’s it really. Great quality food at a better price than the supermarket. Radical!

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