Imagine that instead of buying processed food from a hypermarket, you go to a garden and choose your own tomatoes; while there, you meet people who offer you a slice of rhubarb cake. This is how shopping looks in some food cooperatives – it’s how the world could look, too…
The main advantages of food cooperatives are access to healthy, fresh foodstuffs, the shortest possible supply chain, direct contact with the farmer, community building, and learning to compromise. The cooperatives rely on trust, personal commitment, joint effort and faith in the belief that supporting producers helps build a better world. Participation in a cooperative is also a genuine counter to the current food system. It demonstrates alternative ways to obtain food, which are closely linked to values such as respect, responsibility, balance and moderation.
First off, cooperation
A group of people made up of neighbours and foodies gets together, for example, on a Thursday or a Saturday. One person is responsible for going to the farmer for potatoes, someone else for weighing, packing and distribution. Typically, these roles are rotated and each participant knows how to do all the tasks. In more advanced cooperatives, there will be a shop from which members of the cooperative can buy goods at lower prices but, in return, they are obliged to work a several-hour shift for the cooperative once a month.
Ruta Śpiewak, a scientist at the Faculty of Rural Sociology at the Institute of Rural and Agricultural Development of the Polish Academy of Sciences, is currently running a project about alternative food networks. She points out that this noble activity also has its drawbacks, or rather comes with certain challenges. “Being part of a cooperative is time consuming,” she says. “It requires members to be quite well-organized, and therefore isn’t for everyone. The things you buy there are ultimately quite expensive, although cheaper than in eco-shops. You must be personally committed to the functioning of a cooperative.”
Cooperatives have long-standing leftist traditions. The very notion of coopératisme (from French) means ‘cooperative action’, the Latin cooperari translates as ‘to work together’. Cooperativism was a social movement based on organizing cooperatives in which the means of production were the joint property of all the members. The goal was meant to be social liberation through the elimination of capitalism. At the end of the 18th century, during the industrial revolution in Great Britain, the workers who had moved to the cities for work came to an agreement with their countryside neighbours and began to order food directly from them. This was beneficial for both parties. In 1769, a consumer cooperative, the Fenwick Weavers’ Society, opened its first store with products bought directly from producers. It was also responsible for supervising quality standards in textile mills.
Andrzej L. Zachariasz, in his article “Kooperatyzm jako alternatywa liberalizmu” [Cooperativism as an alternative to liberalism], in the collection Dzisiejsze znaczenie ideałów spółdzielczości [The Importance of the Ideals of the Cooperative Movement Today], edited by Maria Szyszkowska, writes: “The creators and activists of the cooperative movement paid special attention to shaping pro-social thinking among the members of cooperatives, focusing on the issues of the ‘simple man’. The cooperative movement grew out of the tradition of socialist thought and in its intentions, as with economic activity, it was not so much focused on profit and the multiplication of wealth as on the protection of man. In particular, this was supposed to be the protection of the weaker man, the manifestation of the idea of cooperation, and the fight against the so-called consciousness of the ‘exploiter’, i.e. negating the attitudes that enrich some at the expense of others. A cooperative member is not only a thrifty person, a good organizer and an entrepreneur but, above all, a person with high moral standards. Thus, the very nature of the cooperatives and the goals they set for themselves indicate that they were supposed to be, and were, not only organizations designed to spark the social initiative of their members, but also to engender a sense of responsibility for common property. They were, at the same time, schools of community action, i.e. working together towards common goals. Even taking into account just the examples mentioned here, it can be concluded that the cooperative society system was a particular breeding ground for the formation of a real civil society.”
Anyone for jam?
The Park Slope Food Coop (PSFC) is a cooperative in Brooklyn, New York that has existed since 1973. It has 17,000 members and its annual financial operations come to millions of dollars. Leah Koenig, a food writer who specializes in Jewish cuisine, has belonged to this cooperative for several years. Like all the other members, she has to work two and half hours per month for the cooperative. The cooperative shop is only open to members; if anyone wants to shop there, they must have a membership card. Leah emphasizes that getting one is simple and there are no acceptance criteria apart from the desire to join.
In Poland, stores like these work on more open principles. The first place where the Dobrze (‘Good’) cooperative sold products had no shelves. There were simply crates of vegetables on the floor and next to them sacks of grains. Over time, there were more and more cooperative members, both farmers and customers. From the outset, the cooperative wanted to build a community and be accessible to its neighbours – pensioners from the Śródmieście district of Warsaw – so it created a shop open to everyone. It is similar in the Muranów district of Warsaw where, thanks to a public fundraiser, Dobrze opened a second cooperative store. As I write this text, the cooperative is taking part in a competition for premises in the Stary Mokotów district. This location has more space and would allow the coop members to run additional activities, like organizing workshops, meetings and broader educational activities.
“We are a society and we operate on cooperative principles,” says Katarzyna Maciąg from the Dobrze cooperative. “From the outset, it was a grassroots movement. Initially it was simply a shopping group; six years ago, we opened our first shop. Living just off Wilcza Street, I heard about the cooperative when I was gardening with a group of friends on an allotment made available to us by the owner. One member of the group told me about the cooperative and about how there was going to be a meeting about opening a shop. I came from a different world and was interested more for hedonistic reasons – I wanted to have good food. I signed up at once. I liked the idea of self-organization.
“The cooperative shop has three price levels: retail prices, discounts for seniors (mainly at the Muranów store on Anders Street) and membership prices, roughly 30% below the retail prices. Anyone who wants to become a member of the cooperative must come to a meeting. They cannot sign up online. They must understand what they are signing up for; ask questions,” explains Katarzyna. Meetings take place twice a month, with a monthly membership fee of 30 złotys (around £6) and a compulsory shift of three hours per month. People do different things: put out the produce, but also sew multi-use bags or work on the newsletter.
“We are building social capital,” says Katarzyna.
“Can you really get away from capitalist structures?” I ask.
“We live in a bubble,” she replies. “We have a fantastic community, people who we can turn to for different things. We have huge resources. We use a natural means of exchange. I have too much jam – I leave it in the shop. I can borrow a book from someone instead of buying it.”
Veg at your fingertips
Zuzanna Skoczek, vice president of the Fundacja Samodzielność od Kuchni (‘Kitchen Self-Sufficiency Foundation’), cherishes the idea of cooperativism and willingly takes advantage of the products on offer to non-members. “I go to the Dobrze shop on Wilcza Street, because it’s close. I like them; they have seasonal produce from chosen suppliers who you can check out. I’m not a member but, by paying full price, I am supporting the cooperative movement. Members who work in the shop very often don’t know what they are selling; I don’t know how interested they are in the products and how much information they get. However, by going to the shop I develop an ideal. Biodynamic cultivation according to the phases of the moon is not the reason why I go to the cooperative store. But it is important for me to raise society’s awareness, support the idea of shortening the supply chain and the number of intermediaries and to show our co-dependence.”
Aneta Stępniewska uses the Smakoterapia (‘Tastetherapy’) cooperative, and sometimes the Południowa and Mokotów cooperatives. “For me, the main reason is the access to good quality food bought directly from farmers, grown by natural farming methods, with no growth accelerators or excessive use of chemicals. When doing my shopping in a cooperative, I don’t need to check the labels so closely to hunt down the ingredients I want to avoid, which is important where allergies or food intolerances are concerned. The initial selection has already been made ‘on the hoof’ by all the good-hearted people at the cooperative. I get vegetables straight from the field, picked the same day. Due to the large community, it is possible to negotiate discounts, so it makes financial sense as well. The same product is always more expensive in a normal shop. I also know who has grown my carrot.
“In the case of what’s known as CSA (community supported agriculture), the community of people engaged in vegetable cultivation is also important. I am not a punter coming in for a kilo of carrots, but I can, for example, make a list of vegetables to be grown for the needs of the group because the entire season will be paid for upfront. The farmer buys the seed, grows the vegetables and doesn’t need to worry about where to sell them; he has a guaranteed sale and I collect a package every week or two. It is also an advantage to be part of a local community – it is just nice to get together, your social life blossoms, you can find work, children’s clothes, pass on second-hand things, or sell a rarely-used car. Everything you are looking for, or want, is simply at your fingertips.”
Dagmara Gęstwińska, owner of the Kalinówka farm in Pietrzwałd in Wzgórza Dylewskie, supplies produce to six cooperatives. “These people are practically our family. During the pandemic, they were so lovely and supportive that, thanks to their orders, we survived the most difficult early stage. It certainly also has something to do with the fact that we make our own cured meats, fish soup, vegan pâtés, and we sell fish, both fresh and smoked. We’ve made friends. I have ‘helpers’ who take care of collecting the orders and money, and liaison with other partners. For example, when someone asks Kasia what oil she uses for herring, she writes to me and I answer them. The cooperative members get lower prices than at the markets or anywhere else.”
People are attracted by the quality of the produce. “The mind-blowing deliciousness of this food,” as described by Katarzyna Kisielińska, a regular cooperative user. Julia Lelonkiewicz feels the same. “When I joined the cooperative, I didn’t really know what to expect. I was looking for produce that wasn’t widely available at the time in the shops, or had crazy prices. At the same time, I loved the concept. Later on, I discovered, for example, that the dairy or veg from the cooperative tastes differently. Seriously, nowadays I only really find these products tasty. At the same time, it turns out that the cooperative gives something more: a fantastic, supportive community, which I have to thank for loads of brilliant things; not just for the gossip during pick-ups”.
Ewa Rogala, who once used a cooperative in the Saska Kępa district of Warsaw, talks above all about the interpersonal benefits. “For me, the motivation was overwhelmingly social. I like to eat in the company of others and talk with people about food, about making food. A cooperative is the joy of meeting and sharing ideas (what to do with Saffron milk cap mushrooms when you’ve already bought two or three kilograms?), secret recipes. I love food travel and the cooperative makes this possible without having to go far from home.”
Aneta Stępniewska adds: “It’s fun to organize and acquire food and later share it at home, at work and with friends. To encourage others to make smaller or greater changes, because it will simply taste good to them, too. Nothing but benefits.”
Translated from the Polish by Annie Jaroszewicz