The food co-op revolution
Last September, People & Planet — the largest student network in Britain campaigning to end world poverty, defend human rights and protect the environment — launched Scoop: a student food co-operative project in partnership with Food Co-ops experts Sustain. Scoops aim to help students and staff gain access to local, organic, sustainable, healthy food at affordable prices. They are run on a not for profit basis and they rely on the support of student volunteers who oversee the day to day running of the Scoop. They can take the form of buying groups, stalls, bag or box schemes, mobile stores and shops. They can sale a range of staple foods such as rice, pasta, tea, coffee, and chocolate, as well as environmentally-friendly cleaning products.
Scoop is a part of our democratically chosen Going Greener campaign which aims to bring about a low-carbon, resilient and community-led education sector that achieves carbon emissions reductions of at least 50% by 2020. Our Going Greener campaign is inspired by the Transition Towns movement and brings staff and students together to develop and implement their own response to the twin challenges of climate change and energy security. Universities have a key role to play in the UK’s transition to a low-carbon future as they’re places of learning, training UK future leaders; they lead UK research into climate solutions and renewables; they have significant climate impacts from their operations; and they have a huge influence on student’s lifelong behaviour.
To support this transition, the Going Greener campaign has three practical projects for students and staff to get stuck into, focusing on energy, food and waste. Scoop is just one of the practical projects that our students can launch and will give students the opportunity to create and be involved in a co-operative model of working.
Why do students need food co-operatives?
Did you know that locally sourced carrots have 20 food miles whilst conventionally sourced carrots have 1,838 food miles? Or that 95% of fruit and 50% of vegetables eaten in the UK are imported? Or that the amount of food air-freighted around the world has risen by 140% since 1992?
In fact, by the time students leave university, food accounts for roughly 1.5 tonnes of CO2 per person, or 10% of their carbon footprint. Food miles, packaging and the overconsumption of meat all play a part in this. A carbon footprint study by Transition Edinburgh University’s Steering Group found that only 15% of their emissions came from the institution itself, compared with 85% from the university community lifestyle. If you can get people changing carbon and energy-intensive elements of their behaviour at university, it can have a massive knock-on impact for the climate. As much as transition is about preparing a community or institution for a lower-energy, low-carbon future, it’s also about individuals and communities taking responsibility and changing their own behaviour.
Scoop is a great way to counteract high food miles and can offer students easily accessible and affordable food which is convenient for their busy lifestyles. Unlike most food from the supermarket, food purchased from a Scoop will be ethical; it can be local, organic, fair-trade, seasonal, local and low-carbon food. As the produce is sourced from local farmers, it is good quality, fresh food. Scoop also engages students in healthier lifestyle choices through purchasing healthy food.
Many students will have left home for the first time and are looking for ways to meet people and create a sense of community. Scoops bring students together through the development of their own co-operative, as well as bringing together the often fragmented university community to deliver the project, including students, staff and the Student Union. Students will also have greater connectivity to their local community, as they purchase their goods from local suppliers such as local wholesale markets, wholesalers, social enterprises, farmers and community growing schemes. This creates long term local sustainability in an economic environment which has been particularity hard hitting on local and small businesses.
There are also many benefits for the environment as without Scoops, students are much more likely to invest in food that has travelled large distances; has been produced using pesticides; has been traded unfairly; uses plastic packaging; and uses processes which degrade the soil. Students will have a better understanding of where their food comes from, which will engage them in global issues such as climate change, food scarcity and equality. Students also gain invaluable experience in working together to achieve shared objectives and they will learn skills such as meeting facilitation, accountancy, campaigning and project management.
How do Scoops work?
Scoops work by pooling their buying power and ordering food in bulk direct from suppliers, so that students and staff can buy good food at a more affordable price. Scoops are run by a student committee or steering group, made up of students and staff who oversee the project on behalf of the university community. A Scoop can take the form of a buying group, which works by collecting together everyone’s orders in advance. Other models operate more like other food businesses in that they order the produce in bulk from suppliers and then sell it to their customers via stalls, bag or box schemes, mobile stores and shops.
Their not-for-profit system means that they can cut out the middleman by buying goods at wholesale prices from a supplier of local, organic, sustainable food, then sell them onto students and staff without the mark-up. The model has been designed to be flexible so that it suits the context, the limitations and opportunities that the community and environment need. We offer training to student groups on the different models that co-operatives can function and then we allow them to discuss the benefits and limitations of each model. Our role is to support them in creating their own project, and to make them feel part of a larger network that can inspire, motivate and learn from each other. We create the platform that allows them to be part of a movement that is continually evolving through their interactions with each other.
The Food Co-op movement
Scoops have mushroomed from humble beginnings at Leeds University in 2006 to a nationwide movement of over 20 student-led campus outlets. Since September 2011, People & Planet has enabled the launch of eight new Scoops at universities in Kent, Oxford Brookes, Strathclyde, Durham, Manchester, Birmingham, East Anglia and Newcastle. We’ve also supported many other already existing Scoops to develop by allowing students to learn from each other through monthly newsletters, our website, new stories, monthly Skype calls and many student events.
The Scoop model is proving particularly successful because students have the chance to choose a model of co-operative working that suits their needs and their context. Universities vary in size, focus and values and so having the flexibility allows them to overcome limitations and take advantage of opportunities. As they are part of a large network of active student campaigners, they are able and willing to learn from each other. This allows Scoop to be constantly evolving.
Case Sample: University of York
The York People & Planet group established their Scoop in 2009 as a simple vegetable box scheme that they ran from a student’s home. They determined whether there was a demand for such a service, researched suppliers for their stock, ran meetings to manage the day-to-day tasks, and raised funds to start orders and advertise for volunteers. Once they had established themselves as in demand and a workable project, the university decided to give them space to open a shop and provided a grant of £1260 from the York Alumni Fund. They are now open every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. selling tasty, local, everyday essentials and have weekly meetings to discuss the running of the shop as well as their overall goals for the future. Those who are part of the York People & Planet groups said:
“…at York we reckon it would benefit everyone to get a bit closer to our food. Ditching your local supermarket in favour of a food cooperative is a great step in helping to tackle climate change, introducing an aspect of community into our consumption and having a greater appreciation for what you eat. While it might take a while to adjust to a new routine (wholesale orders can take a little more planning that just nipping to the shops!) but we found that we actually have more freedom than when shopping consisted of sprinting round the aisles and enduring supermarket queues. A positive future for food must be based on an acceptance of greater responsibility for what we eat, and establishing food cooperatives are a brilliant way to take back control of the food chain!”
Case Study: University of St. Andrews
Motivated by a desire to provide good value, fairly-traded goods to students, members of the St. Andrews ‘One World’ Society have established a cooperative to use the power of buying in bulk to lower costs and provide an easy way for students to buy ethically. Their not-for-profit system means that they can cut out the middleman by buying goods at wholesale prices from a supplier of organic, Fairtrade and vegan goods.
They currently buy in a £5 vegetable bag (which would otherwise be sold for £10) and sell it for £6. With the profits, they run weekly community food events which bring people together, raise awareness of sustainable food and promote the food co-op which can then reach a wider range of students. The society provides a range of staple foods and other goods can be ordered from the co-op’s suppliers by request. Students can then place orders by email or through a cunning e-commerce system on their website.
Top tips from our student network
- Setting up a food co-op is a process and you may want to start off as a small buying group and over time progress. You could start off in someone’s home and progress onto a space on campus.
- Contacting your Student Union and University representatives will be absolutely key if you are to progress and expand your reach. This could take time and persistence but will eventually pay off. If you begin as a buying group you could show them the interest in such a scheme.
- Being able to put across why and how student food co-ops will benefit the university and student union will be useful in winning their support over.
- Remember that this is a key opportunity to involve people who have not necessarily been involved in these types of activities before but are interested in food, co-operatives or just volunteering.
Food has emerged as one of the most effective and engaging routes into sustainability awareness and behaviour change in recent years. A growing proportion of universities have started providing allotments, developing sustainable food policies and improving their catering operations. For example, the number of universities providing land or space for student or staff-led Transition has doubled since 2010. In the last six years, 20 student food co-operatives have popped up around the country, with eight of those established in just the last year. People & Planet continues to offer a range of support and resources for student groups to set up student food co-ops and these are becoming more defined as we learn from students’ own experiences.
Universities are a great place to introduce co-operatives, as students are looking for practical, work-based learning that will give them experience and support them to find work post-degree. These experiences will continue to benefit them well beyond university, as they learn how to become engaged and active citizens throughout their lives. Scoops look set to continue to grow over the coming years.
Lisa Tozer is the Climate Change Campaign Co-ordinator at People & Planet. She works mainly on People & Planet’s Going Greener: Transition Universities campaign, including co-ordinating Go Green Week. She also helps to support the Green League.
People & Planet is a student-led movement that empowers young people with the skills, confidence and knowledge they need to make change happen, at home and globally. People & Planet trains and supports over 2000 volunteers and around 60 student groups in universities across Britain, each year.