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A Magazine for Sheffield

Cooperation Town "It's about how people build connections, share produce and take control over their own food supply"

Cooperation Town are empowering people to establish self-organised community food co-ops in Sheffield. Sheffield Organiser Mikee Whitson tells us more about this exciting and vital work.

Cooperation town food coop 1

Co-op members sorting food into individual crates for pick up.

Cooperation Town

Cooperation Town helps communities around the country to set up food co-ops, through which members self-organise to access affordable food.

Every food co-op is owned by its members and manages itself according to the group's day-to-day needs. The aim is to empower people to work together to tap into surplus food, local shops and wholesale suppliers to get fairer food prices. Groups pool resources to get better deals on the items they choose to source collectively. For example, they might want only vegetarian ingredients or halal products.

I spoke to Mikee Whitson, the Cooperation Town project lead in Sheffield, to learn more about the team’s work to connect with and support Sheffield communities to set up street-level food co-ops. As Mikee says: "Food is the glue that brings people together."

Can you tell us more about what Cooperation Town has been doing in Sheffield?

Since I started working on this at the end of last year, we have reached out to people from marginalised backgrounds to introduce the cooperative organising model and help set up co-op groups. I’m based in Burngreave and we’ve had a lot of interest around here and throughout Sheffield. Our first co-op, Cooperation Verdon, is now starting to receive and distribute food and is based out of Verdon Street Recreation Centre [in Burngreave], who’ve made us feel really welcome.

We have started conversations with new and established groups across Sheffield, with interest in Manor and Castle, Fir Vale, Southey, Broomhall and other areas.

We all need to eat every day and with prices continuing to go up, people are struggling to pay food bills. The need is only increasing, whilst supermarkets' profits continue to rise.

While the demand for surplus food increases, the industry has massively shifted over the last few years to be more of a business, making it harder to tap into that resource. This has meant we have had to adapt, whilst still trying to do what we set out to do, which is to provide affordable food to people and help groups self-organise.

Everything that is free, doesn’t stay free. It becomes commodified. That is where Cooperation Town comes in. We are not about setting up an empire of food co-ops – we are about helping groups get set up and leaving them to it. We enable people to find the resources available to them, so we look at growers, wholesalers and how we can pool resources.

Tell us more about how Cooperation Town works in practice.

Each Cooperation Town co-op is made out of 20 households, who together decide how much money they're going to put in each week. It could be a cohort which has a membership charge as low as £2 (this is to cover what Fareshare charges). It's up to members. Most households put in about £5 towards their collective pot, which they use to purchase items in bulk and pay towards the small cost associated with receiving surplus food. But it really is up to the individual co-op on what works for them.

This is how Cooperation Town is different from a food bank or a pop-up market. It's about how people build connections, share produce and take control over their own food supply.

The Organiser role is to encourage people to get together, introduce them to the process of setting up a community food co-op and support them as they establish their group.

Usually the first step is to find a local community space and organise a meetup. When a group is formed, we create a way of communicating, like a Whatsapp group, and start by getting people thinking about what they want to spend each week, what kind of things they want to buy, where to get deals or how to access surplus items.

Ultimately, the group looks at the possibilities and decides themselves how they will run their co-op to get what they need and what other community ideas can develop out of this.

We call these the 'side dishes', which compliment the main dish of access to affordable food, and this is where the groups get to be creative and find solutions to their local issues. Examples of side dishes could be anything from setting up a community meal to supporting each other with childcare, car shares, organising a clothes and toy swaps or even a community launderette.

Have there been challenges along the way?

Getting enough food for the right price is where the pinch point is!

I have managed to organise a Fareshare membership – Fareshare is a national network of charitable food redistributors – which includes one delivery a week of 125kg of surplus food. This is enough for one co-op, so we will have to use our imaginations to make sure we have a regular supply of food to meet the needs of all of our co-ops.

Cooperation town food coop 5

The Cooperation Town Starter Pack shows the different stages of establishing a co-op, explains the various sources of food and how to get them, and offers ideas for how to organise meetings, find new members and manage the group’s finances.

Cooperation Town

This is where it gets interesting. We have to work within communities to find food solutions by tapping into local knowledge about wholesalers, food markets, growers and friendly shops. Some of those resources are already maxed out, so we’ve got to be creative!

That is the potential of food co-ops, as together we are opening the door for people who engage to help come up with solutions.

Are you encouraged by how food systems are changing?

There are more community pantries, food banks and pop-ups than ever before in Sheffield, but they rely on the unreliable good will of volunteers and a mass admin operation. The difference is that co-ops are run by the people who benefit from them, no bosses or middle managers getting in the way. So we are more focussed on removing dependency rather than perpetuating it, saying that we can only solve the issues if we work together.

There are some inspiring grassroots projects each with their own take, such as the Food Squad and Food Cycle, as well as some larger organisations as doing great work as well, such as St Mary’s Church and S6 Foodbank. Collectively there are some really great links to community work and there are encouraging signs.

I want to be realistic – I think we need more action, as the food bank model isn’t sustainable. We need more creative ideas and we need more representation from communities. That is really important and I think Cooperation Town is helping to do this.

Ideally, we want to encourage more people to set up co-op groups and to have hubs in community centres across the city, where people can meet, socialise, organise and work together around issues affecting their communities. It would be great to see these in Parsons Cross, Fir Vale, Darnall – then several co-ops could operate out of these hubs. That is my role – to find more buildings, more suppliers, and to help facilitate the growth of more co-ops.

We are open to hearing from anyone who wants to set up their own group, change a food bank or pantry into a co-op and, especially, anyone who can help with driving or has food they can contribute. We want to hear people’s ideas and have conversations, so get in touch for a chat by contacting Mikee on 07391 090096 and we can help you get started.

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