Started in the recession-struck eighties, Ireland’s food co-operatives are currently flourishing, writes Gillian Hamill
Apr 13 2012
“I used to do my food shopping online, like a lot of people I thought it was the future of shopping. But then you’d read about dairy farmers being forced out of business at the same time as supermarkets announcing bumper profits, and I thought that there had to be a better way.” This was the explanation provided by Arthur Potts Dawson, the founder of The People’s Supermarket in London, when asked by Channel 4 why he decided to establish his member-operated retail co-operative, which later starred in its own thought-provoking television series.
Striking a chord
It’s clear from the many comments generated on Channel 4’s online forums, that this is an initiative that struck a chord among large numbers of consumers who are concerned about the amount of power exerted by large retailers. While city-dwellers in metropolitan hubs such as London may feel pretty far removed from the notion of mucking out on an actual farm, they still want to have greater control over where the food they eat actually comes from. Many spoke of being “inspired” by the concept, which was itself inspired by “the mothership” that is Park Slope in Brooklyn, New York; a food co-op which was founded in 1973 and now boasts a phenomenal total of over 20,000 members.
Concern about the power held by large supermarkets is an issue that’s often voiced here in Ireland too, although more often than not, it’s by members of the farming community. On the other hand though, one need only look at the success of the Love Irish Food campaign, which currently has over 80 member brands, to see that Irish consumers in general clearly do care about protecting local jobs and sustaining our island’s agricultural and food heritage.
Tackling inequality in supply chains
On the subject of supporting Irish producers, the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) actually recently conceded a rare nugget of praise for Tesco, when president John Bryan “acknowledged the progress made by Tesco domestically in increasing the amount of local produce in their stores”. That said, he was still keen to point out that “securing more equity in the food supply chain continues to be a priority for farmers, especially for fresh produce suppliers, who need a higher proportion of the consumer price to cover their costs of production and leave a margin.”
With farmers feeling the heat in unequal food supply chains from as far back as the 19th century, when Ireland’s dairy industry was often controlled by large landowners or traders who reportedly gave farmers a poor return, it’s no surprise that according to an essay by Aisling Murtagh and Professor Michael Ward, that agricultural co-ops have historically played an important role on these isles in responding to “issues of inequity and powerlessness in food supply chains.” In comparison however, Ireland has no equivalent historical tradition of consumer co-operation. In fact, consumer co-ops are described as “only a spec within Ireland’s co-operative sector, whereas in other countries they are one of its dominant types, such as the UK, Japan and North America”.
Ireland’s co-op initiatives
While not dominant within Ireland’s co-operative sector, the two food co-ops currently in operation have nevertheless more than pulled their weight when it comes to generating interest for the ideals involved. Both establishments
have managed to attract a high number of members and an even greater number of customers. One of them, The Quay Co-op based on Sullivan’s Quay in Cork city centre, is a workers co-operative, which includes an impressive portfolio of a vegetarian restaurant, in-house bakery and three whole food shops in Cork city, Ballincollig, and Carrigaline.
Founded back in 1982 as a radical and alternative community project by a collective effort of feminist, lesbian, gay, environmental and other alternative groups and individuals; there is patently a demand for this particular co-op, which describes itself as being “an institution to the people of Cork.”
Dynamic Dublin movement
The Dublin Food Co-op (DFC) which coincidentally was separately established just one year later in 1983, has also gone through a number of reincarnations since it first began almost 30 years ago. The co-op states that its roots lie with a group of friends involved in a campaign to stop the government building a nuclear power station at Carnsore Point, Co. Wexford.
Together, in 1983, they formed a buying group to save money by bulk purchasing vegetarian whole foods and other sustainable living products. Within a short time, the embryonic co-operative had moved toward trading weekly from a hired hall at St. Andrew's Resource Centre on Pearse Street, which went on to become its home for more than two decades.
The Dublin Food Co-operative Society was then formally registered in 1991 and proudly states that it “was a pioneer of organic and local food long before the rise of farmers' markets in Ireland”. As the Pearse Street venue did not allow an opportunity for either expansion or permanence, the co-op began its long search for a new home, before finally moving to its current location in Newmarket Square, Dublin 8, in July 2007.
Tim Cookson, operations manager, explains more about the move from Pearse Street to the DFC’s current location. With the Pearse Street venue being rented instead of owned, he notes that, “it was always our intention to move and buy our own place”. Nevertheless he adds that the most recent relocation was “quite traumatic; some people wanted to stay in the place where we were”; believing its location to be more central. Speaking about his own personal experience of Newmarket Square, he admits: “I was a bit dubious about it before we came but from the first day we were here, it became apparent everything was going to be ok. It was full of people talking and enjoying it; it was chaos. But loads of people came and the atmosphere was nice, and compared to the other venue, a lot more people could bring their cars and stay all day rather than have to fight with the traffic wardens. It just seemed an easier choice.” In saying this he does also concede that the Pearse Street building was very pleasant with attractive traditional features, whereas the Newmarket venue is “effectively a factory.”
A range of products on display inside the co-op’s shop
Positive first impressions
From ShelfLife’s first impressions upon visiting the site, the DFC’s members, which currently number in the region of 800 – 1000 people, have certainly helped to negate a typical factory floor vibe. From the entrance of the space, where singer, songwriter and photographer Sean O’Neill was standing in front of an AGM notice, with a gorgeous golden labrador for company, it becomes clear that the organisers have succeeded in creating a welcoming, albeit informal space. The corridor which leads down unto the main market floor is lined by a welcome and sign-up desk and various stall holders such as Kate Park of Bare Essentials in Kildare, which uses ethically sourced ingredients and pure essential oils to make colourful soaps, and did so well at the DFC before Christmas that she had to buy three times as much of her initial stock.
To the left of this, is a fully fitted out food shop, while a short flight of steps below, the main market trading space offers a café with a seating area and organic wine stall, among an abundant range of fresh foods. Cookson explains that the shop section has approximately 10 suppliers, including two major suppliers who would supply some 75% of what’s stocked on the shop’s shelves. Namely, Essential Trading which is based in Bristol in the UK and Independent Irish Health Foods which is based in Cork. The shop also trades with Wholefoods Wholesale, Pallas Foods and various other smaller suppliers.
In terms of fresh produce, supply hails from west Wicklow, Kildare, Meath, Louth, as well as “a variable percentage of goods that are imported.” With tackling inequality in food supply chains being an important motivator for the group, it’s not surprising that Cookson says: “It would be surprising if they [suppliers] weren’t getting a better deal with us,” compared to their dealings with supermarkets. However he adds that while some of the co-op’s smaller suppliers may have produce currently stocked by the grocery giants, its “large wholesalers aren’t interested in the big supermarkets; they seem to be on a separate track.”
Open on Thursdays and Saturdays, with an occasional flea market or vintage fair based there on a Sunday; an annual membership for the DFC costs E25, with a 50% discount for students, social welfare recipients and pensioners. Importantly, anyone is able to shop at the co-op without first becoming a member, but membership enables them to receive a 10% discount on all purchases. By working on the ‘help rota’, completing a two-hour shift once every five weeks, they can also receive an additional discount, receiving a total of 15% off all produce.
Sean O’Neill provides the entertainment outside the Dublin Food Co-op
Upholding the co-op’s aims
The DFC has several key aims that include providing organically grown and ecologically acceptable products, and ShelfLife wanted to know if these were unchangeable principles. “There would be some of them yes, some of them no, would be the honest answer,” replies Cookson candidly. “There would be some people who’d be very keen on keeping to what they might refer to as our core principles; others are maybe not so attached to that.” One aspect he feels very passionately about though is that the co-op will remain vegetarian. “That really is written in stone,” he says. “It was set up by vegetarians to be a vegetarian enterprise, and that is in our constitution, we will not trade in animal products.”
Cookson stresses however that he “can’t be seen to speak for the co-op” as it is a democratic organisation, where all members have a say in how it is run. “It’s a very full church [in terms of viewpoints]. It’s a members owned consumers co-op. There is no boss or shareholders behind it, we only have to please ourselves.”
As all Irish retailers can testify, consumers across the spectrum have become much more demanding of value since the recession struck. ShelfLife was keen to learn if this was also a pressing concern for those who shop at the co-op. Cookson offers an “unscientific answer” to this question. “My personal feeling, based on what you hear from people, is that the notion of value, means different things to different people,” he notes. “Variety, the ambience, the community, are also important because without those, it’s a shop and it is more than a shop - it’s a community, it really is.” While he thinks the co-op offers comparative prices to elsewhere though, he adds: “It did strike me that since the economy went sour, that people became a lot more interested in the discount for volunteering.”
Consumers taking control
With such a large membership base at the co-op moreover, it’s difficult for the operations manager to predict what the future will bring. “Some people I feel would be more comfortable if we were to scale down; it’s got bigger than what it was originally intended to be. Other people would be more interested in expanding and doing more of what we currently do. So where the co-op goes, we will see.”
Further pondering on what the future holds for the consumer co-op sector, he adds: “I don’t know how good my fortune telling is really but based on what I hear and what I read, there are other kinds of DIY enterprises, and people doing it for themselves seems to be one way of taking some control against the madness”. Ultimately the success of Ireland’s co-operative sector shows that while it remains a niche segment, Irish consumers aren’t afraid of creating their own alternative if mainstream retailers and corporations don’t live up to their demands.