This article was originally written for the Guardian
There’s a white van in Oxford that is not what it seems. Rather than tools and timber, it carries scales and a till. From the weekend, this travelling greengrocer will deliver produce around the city, with locals deciding where (and when) it should stop.
Their opinion really matters – the vegetable van is being paid for by its future customers. Cultivate Oxford, which came up with the idea, ran a community share offer, raising £80,000 from 200 investors. It’s a community benefit society – or BenCom – which means the operation must benefit the wider community.
Community ownership is on the increase, as food-focused enterprises turn to would-be customers for start-up cash. And, more often than not, those investors are interested in a return that isn’t financial. Instead, they are looking for positive projects to improve their area, reduce food miles and challenge the dominance of the supermarkets and industrial-scale farming.
The best-known example is The People’s Supermarket, launched in 2010 in central London by chef Arthur Potts Dawson. It has a turnover of nearly £1.2m and has created 17 full- and part-time jobs. It’s not been easy though: it has just announced a partnership with Spar worth £100,000 to help secure its future. In exchange, Spar becomes its largest wholesale supplier.
CEO Kate Bull insists the deal isn’t at odds with the organisation’s aims. “We’ve always had to sell things like Heinz baked beans to be competitive. We negotiated a contract where we keep our independence … but we now have a commercial partner with clout, who we can show a different way of doing business.”
In Exeter, the Real Food Store (another BenCom) sold £152,776 in community shares: it has been trading since March 2011 and is breaking even. It sells locally grown vegetables, which are delivered daily, bakes bread on site and runs a cafe, where tired produce can be cooked to reduce waste. Director David Mezzetti says the store’s 287 investors are “keen to have a shop where the bulk of food comes from within 30 or 40 miles … In a sense, the return is social, not financial.”
Manchester’s Unicorn Grocery is a co-op, owned and run by its workforce. It has expanded to grow the food it sells. Using money partly loaned from customers, it bought 21 acres of land – eight acres are in production, with a six-year rotation, growing a wide variety of organic veg.
“We had a fantastic response from customers,” explains one of its workers, Stuart Jones. “Some lent Unicorn the money and chose a return of between 0 to 4%.” Jones says that, as well as the sense of involvement, the project gave a “safe and ethical investment at a time when the banks were falling apart”.
Above all, these projects are about championing local produce and exploring alternative food systems. Julian Cottee of Cultivate Oxford says: “No other kind of activism is simultaneously so sensually engaging. That’s what’s so great about doing this stuff – it’s about environment, people and enjoyment rolled into one.”