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EUROPE: Co-ops Off to a Promising Start

Claudia Ciobanu

Co-op members say their eating habits have changed radically since joining. Credit: Warsaw Food Co-operative.

Co-op members say their eating habits have changed radically since joining. Credit: Warsaw Food Co-operative.

PRAGUE, Dec 1 2011 (IPS) - A small wave of consumer cooperatives is rising in Central and Eastern Europe, attempting to provide food that is locally produced and healthy, and to build conviviality.

Co-op members say their eating habits have changed radically since joining. Credit: Warsaw Food Co-operative.

Co-op members say their eating habits have changed radically since joining. Credit: Warsaw Food Co-operative.

Thousands of producer and consumer cooperatives exist in post-socialist countries, many of them new initiatives created since 1989. They enjoy legal protection and even European Union funds. But a special breed of informal consumer cooperatives has started emerging in the region in the past years, created by mostly middle-class people interested in healthy food and being a part of a community of peers.

“Co-operatives always appear when they are needed,” says Torsten Lorenz, a historian studying the European cooperative movement at Charles University in Prague. “The English Rochdale co-operative, considered the starting point of the whole movement, appeared in the mid 19th century because people were starving and they found that cooperation helped them weather hard times. Nowadays it is often young environmentalists and leftists in pursuit of an alternative vision of society who start co-ops.”

“There are different reasons why people joined our cooperative,” says Piotr Trzaskowski, one of the members of Warsaw Food Co-op, created two years ago in the Polish capital. What attracts him among other reasons is “getting clean, ethical food at lower prices than in organic shops, and supporting local farmers.”

Members of the Warsaw co-op organise shopping sessions every two weeks in a squat in the centre of the city. According to Trzaskowki, about 60 people make up the broad co-op network of consumers, with 20 taking part in each shopping round. The group buys from two ecological farms as well as from a large food deposit in the city.

“What we have in place is definitely a consumer-friendly system,” explains Trzaskowski. “It could be good to move towards a system where the focus is on support for the farmers but this would require a change in our philosophy which we are not envisaging yet and which also would be revolutionary in Polish society, even for the farmers themselves.”

The Warsaw Food Co-op seems to have already paved the way for others: another similar co-op already functions in Warsaw and two more in cities Lublin and Lodz, with a couple of other initiatives in the process of taking shape around the country.

And such projects have appeared across the region, from more basic shopping schemes (such as veggie boxes – implying that consumers get periodic deliveries of a limited number of products directly from farmers to set locations, paying upon delivery) which now exist in all countries, from Romania to Slovakia, to the more complex consumer supported agriculture (CSA).

CSA means farmers receive payments at the beginning of the season for the entire period and consumers pledge to take up all the products farmed in this period, thus sharing the risks with producers. Three CSAs function across Hungary, while in the Czech Republic there are five, mostly located in capital Prague, with a new one planned in Brno next year.

Jan Valeška from the organisation Biospotrebitel was involved in setting up the first CSA scheme in Prague over four years ago and currently participates in two groups, one made up of 40 consumers, and another smaller one, where a farmer herself coordinates food distribution for ten people.

Valeška explains that, as much as he would like to use the word cooperative for the schemes he organises, he cannot: for one, existing cooperatives in the Czech Republic, even in the farming sector, “are huge and do not meet solid social and environmental sustainability criteria”; for another, cooperatives are regarded with skepticism in the country because of their use by the Communist Party and a reputation of corruption surrounding some of the first post-socialist co-ops.

“I am primarily interested in promoting sustainable ways of farming because they are environmentally friendly,” Valeška says. “CSAs represent new ways of getting people involved in farming, of linking consumers directly with farmers, of getting them in touch to the passing of seasons.

“People joining CSAs are fed up with supermarket food,” he continues. “We want to know the farmers and understand how the food is produced; we’re not so much interested in food formally labeled as organic, more in local food.” Throughout the year, Valeška and his colleagues go to the supplier farms during ‘pick your own days’ to better understand production and help farmers.

Bulgarians are also working on implementing the CSA model but so far this remains at the planning stage. According to Sava Chankov, member of the one-year-old Sofia-based Hrankoop (one of two such co-ops in the country, the other one being in Plovdiv), farmers themselves find it difficult to put as much trust in consumers as necessitated by this scheme.

Chankov agrees with the other activists that consumer co-ops in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) are at the moment a project for the middle class because prices are often higher than in supermarkets.

“Many Bulgarians do not care so much about the quality of the food they eat and they are most concerned about prices,” he explains. “I think co-ops will move forward in Bulgaria, but only to some extent because of people’s lack of interest in food issues.”

Nevertheless, Chankov keeps his faith in consumer food co-ops: “For me, it is very important to get clean food and be able to meet and do activities together with people who share the same interests.” He also notes that many Bulgarians, while not involved in collective projects, have relatives in the countryside supplying them with food, or have a small garden themselves. According to Chankov, a larger number of district-based co-ops could be the way forward.

“Compared to three years ago, these initiatives are growing, every year there are more people interested and wanting to start CSAs in their own precincts,” says Valeška. “Even people who don’t practice CSA yet have accepted the idea.”

Trzaskowski too says there is growing interest in co-ops in Poland because it is an attractive, durable form of activism with strong impact on daily life. Even more, he argues, “our cooperative is a political force, not only because we are organised consumers, but also because we are active in other areas too, such as educating people about food politics.”

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