Alternative food systems: food cooperatives

Jun 26, 2015 Posted by:  

During ClimATE Change project events organized by PGN, the participants from Polish cities often want to know how they can support the environment- and climate-friendly agriculture in their everyday life. One of the directions we usually point them to is building alternative food systems based on local and more sustainable food production and consumption. In one of the recent articles we wrote about community supported agriculture. Today we take a closer look at food cooperatives.

Why food cooperatives?

Imagine a city in which small food cooperatives operate in every district or even in each neighbourhood. They organize group food purchases but also animate local community life. Anyone can become their member. They serve as a platform for intergenerational and social cooperation, a school of direct democracy and resourcefulness. Food bought through them is fresh, organic and affordable. This is the vision which inspires the fledgling food cooperatives movement in Poland.

Food coops usually operate informally and not for profit. This differentiates them from other more typical agricultural cooperatives. Despite the fact that group food purchases constitute the main part of their activity, their goal is to initiate a type of a social change. This is why starting a food cooperative can be seen as having the socio-political meaning.

The operational logic of food coops is entirely different from typical business initiatives. It is not about generating profit but creating opportunities for people to satisfy their everyday food needs in a way that contributes to building more just and sustainable world. Cooperatives strive to shorten the distance between consumers and farmers by eliminating unnecessary intermediaries and base their activity on the mutual respect between all participating parties.

Working together

Theoretically, anyone can start a food cooperative and shape it according to the needs and organizational capacity of its members. But food coops are based on the idea that one never acts alone, thus they always entail building a community. Only the common effort of all members guarantees the initiative's success. Carrying out different tasks brings the group together and successes give more joy if they can be shared with others. Even though cooperatives usually start with practical challenges, they achieve a lot more by building relationships between their members. Being in a community is also a chance to create new projects. The experience shows that food coops often lead to other similar initiatives such as community supported agriculture.

How does it work?

Food cooperatives have various ways of operating. Usually, food purchases are made during one chosen day once a week or every two weeks. In the morning, designated people go to buy food products which were earlier ordered by the coop members. The orders are most often made using web-based ordering system. After the shopping is finished, the food is brought to the meeting place of the cooperative, where it is weighed and packed for each member. At the agreed time, the members arrive to pay and receive their orders. Sometimes the payment might include extra 10% for the coop's common fund. This money can be used, for example, to buy necessary equipment (such as scales) or to finance the purchases for cooperative members who might be temporarily in need.

During the shopping day, cooperatives often have also the organizational meeting for their participants. This is the time to evaluate the current round of purchases, plan the next one and decide together about possible improvements of the whole process. In cooperatives all members are equal, there are no bosses, and everyone can express their opinion. At the end of the day, designated members clean the room where the food was distributed.

Until the next shopping round the cooperative participants usually communicate with each other only through Internet. Some of the members work additionally in various task groups. In one of the cooperatives in Warsaw, for example, there is a group whose task is to find new suppliers and another one which deals with the issues connected to the web-based ordering system. Sometimes cooperatives organize also various cultural events.

Organic or cheap?

Access to certified organic food in Poland is not a big problem anymore. However, taking into account the price of products sold in organic shops, organic food is still not affordable on the regular basis for the majority of the Polish society. The solution to this problem is still to be found and constitutes also the biggest challenge for the food cooperatives movement in Poland. Creating a way to supply city inhabitants with affordable healthy food might be a key element to making food cooperatives a practical and functioning model.

At the moment, there are still too few organic farmers in Poland willing to engage in this type of pilot and, for now, not very profitable initiatives. Those producers who are ready usually offer relatively high prices. It is understandable as the price must reflect high production cost and include a fair remuneration for hard work on farms. Food coops do not want to pressure farmers to sell their produce at cost. Food prices should be fair but at the same time acceptable to less affluent consumers. This could be achieved by increasing the size of purchases, which means going in the direction of the wholesale buying. This requires, however, greater number of ordering parties, which means building bigger cooperatives or creating networks of coops operating in one district or city and making purchases together.

Organizational challenges

The very first food cooperative in Poland was started a few years ago in Warsaw. Soon it was followed by groups in other cities. Currently, there are food coops operating also in Krakow, Łódź, Gdańsk, Poznań, Lublin, Białystok and other places.

Food cooperatives face many organizational challenges. On one hand, they want to work in the democratic manner, but at the same time they need to make sure that the responsibility for carrying out various tasks does not become diluted. What is the best way to take decisions? Through voting or by trying to reach a consensus? If a coop chooses the latter, how can it make sure that everyone is able to voice their opinions? There is also the issue of members' commitment. How to make sure that the workload in a cooperative is divided more less equally? Even the biggest enthusiasm can quickly fade away when the whole work is carried out by just a few people.

The future

Food cooperatives are still a relatively new phenomenon in Poland and thus have not lost their novelty appeal. Moreover, people can engage in them without any specialist knowledge or skills. The interest in the food coops movement in Poland is undoubtedly growing so the are good prospects of its further development.

The above article was written on the basis of the excerpt from the action guide "Time for change. Choose locality! How to support environment- and people-friendly agriculture?" published in Polish by PGN.

Photo credit: Meagan Perosha / USDA (Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Last Modified: Jun 26, 2015