From Mutual Aid to Food Co-ops

It has been almost a year since Cooperation Town came into being.

In December 2019, Labour lost yet another election and Corbyn was out of the game. Surprisingly or not, depending on your conviction, the electoral system failed to deliver and it became clear to many on the left that continuing to invest energy and resources into a party led by Sir Starmer might be a waste of time.

By the time that happened, Cooperation Town organised its first event, a Free Food Larder in Camden, north London and started the process of setting up the first food co-op – Cooperation Kentish Town. 

The model was simple: a group of neighbours, up to 20 households, get together, pool their resources and purchase food and other household products in bulk. In addition to the groceries they buy, members get access to the near-endless supply of surplus food that makes its way from supermarkets to a few big charities, which then distribute it further to smaller organisations, faith groups, community associations and food banks (more on that later). 

Co-op members all have roles in running the co-op, using a consent decision making process and practising a non-hierarchical structure. Each member has a small job – a treasurer to collect the subs, someone to oversee the members list, drivers to pick up the food and packers to prepare shopping bags. No one is a manager, everyone’s an organiser.

“Through joining the food coop I connected with neighbours I never knew. Organising together has been a godsend – we get lots of food for free, buy the rest in bulk, split the cost and collectively get more for our money. There is a place for everyone, no matter what your skills are and you learn some new ones along the way. Everyone takes on a small role, so no one person is left holding the beans!”

Kirsty Walker, Cooperation Ingestre Road 

The idea wasn’t new or radical, co-ops existed for over 170 years, but the simplicity and accessibility of the model caught the imagination. Within weeks of announcing the formation of Cooperation Kentish Town (in this Freedom News article), activists and organisers around the UK got in touch to find out more about the project. 

We realised that, while we’re still experimenting with the format, we might be onto something much bigger. What if Cooperation Town turned into a massive network of community-led, self-organised food co-ops? What if it turned into a movement?

Our intuition proved to be correct. Two ‘initiators’ training workshops in January and February 2020 attracted huge interest, with attendees travelling (or joining online) from Dorset to Edinburgh and a number of them starting soon after to set up co-ops in their own areas. 

Our principles were clear – the network should be made out of autonomous co-ops, organised and controlled by their own members. There should be no demand on groups to conform or report to a central organisation, but that an independent structure, facilitating the network, should share resources and link up co-ops for mutual benefit. That this is a working-class project, designed to meet the needs of people on low or no income, not a performative protest or hobby activism for the rich. And, mostly, that the purpose is to learn from each other how to organise ourselves, out of the state and the charity system and away from the dreaded food banks. In fact, we want to turn every food bank into a food co-op and every recipient into an organiser! 

Then came covid. 

Within days, public gatherings were banned, making co-op meetings and training sessions impossible to hold. 

At the same time, it became painfully clear that the food poverty crisis, which was already evident to anyone who wanted to see it, was about to increase tenfold. People in precarious employment were losing their jobs, parents were forced to stay home, tenants faced evictions. The ongoing onslaught of neoliberalism took on a more immediately deadly form, directly killing poor and working-class people, migrants and people of colour, at work, at home, in our communities.

In Kentish Town, the Cooperation Town food co-op had a small scale distribution operation. To meet the new urgent needs of our community, all we needed was to scale up. And so it happened that on 21 March, a day after the lockdown was announced, Cooperation Kentish Town delivered its first batch of free groceries to local residents. The local council, taken by surprise, got in touch to ask for advice. A friend developed for us a bespoke distribution system, which we shared with groups all over the borough. Mutual aid groups zoomed in for tips. We had to learn fast.

Over the coming six months, Cooperation Kentish Town delivered nearly 12 tonnes of food to Camden residents, the equivalent of around 28,000 meals.

In Bristol and Birmingham, affiliated groups set up their own mass operations, distributing thousands of cooked meals and fresh grocery boxes. Cooperation Town Hull set up base in a church hall and started distributing locally.

In the following days and weeks, a new network of mutual aid groups popped up everywhere. Volunteers were picking up prescriptions and doing their neighbours’ supermarket shopping. They were agile and responsive, based on free association and, at least in principle, non-hierarchical. They were able to meet the immediate needs of many people who were ill or shielding. They collected and distributed huge amounts in donations and helped circulate food provided by existing charities and local authorities. Most importantly, they introduced the idea of community organising to many people who never considered themselves organisers or a part of any community. 

But they weren’t without problems. Despite the name, mutual aid groups lacked mutuality and firmly followed the charity model of kind-hearted philanthropists serving the sick and deserving poor (even if some of them got their shopping picked up from Waitrose). Being self-selecting, they were, to a large extent, populated by those who had the most time, energy and confidence to take part – white, middle-class professionals, who used the free time paid for by the government’s furlough scheme to engage in their community. They were sometimes confused when the need didn’t match their levels of enthusiasm (we spoke to a group that complained about only having six ‘needy neighbours’ to provide sixty keen volunteers with the opportunity to ‘do something’). Most of all, they were, on the whole, depoliticised (and, often, anti-political) groups, which exhausted their members and were, ultimately, unsustainable. They didn’t tackle the core root of the problem: food poverty and insecurity, caused by low wages, high rents and diminishing access to public services. With schools and workplaces reopening, many mutual aid groups have dissolved or stopped providing crisis relief. But the crisis is far from over.

Now what? Six months into the most serious emergency of the decade (for those of us in the West, who weren’t already suffering war and displacement), the conclusion is clear: Things are going to get much worse. 

With the end of the eviction ban, 170,000 private tenants are threatened with homelessness and 230,000 are in debt to their landlords. Benefits claims increased by 120%, while thousands of employers decided to lay off workers (despite a government incentive paid to them to save jobs). 300,000 workers are expected to lose their jobs in the immediate term, many of whom were already earning poverty wages. The Office for Budget Responsibility predicts between 10-13% unemployment rates in 2021, with up to four million people out of work. The economy already shrank 20.4% as the UK hit its first recession since the 2008 meltdown.

For many of us, this spells more insecurity. For those of us who were already struggling – low waged workers, people doing irregular jobs or on zero-hours contracts, private renters, migrants, single mums – this could spell destitution.

The crisis hits the poorest on all fronts (health, housing, work and the ability to feed ourselves) and will require an equally coordinated response, from the government, councils, voluntary organisations, trade and renters unions to people organising in activist and mutual aid groups. We believe that the model we developed, which, in some ways, brings some of those elements together, can be part of the solution, not just through tackling food poverty, but through suggesting a model for self-organisation that could be used when dealing with other parts of our lives.

So what have we done so far? 

During lockdown and while taking part in crisis relief, Cooperation Town continued with its mission to develop a network of community-led food co-ops. We spent months talking to potential partners (including residents groups, community centres, tenants organisations, Cooperatives London and the Co-op Group). 

We registered a limited company and a workers co-op (meaning that our organisation applies the principle of equality and mutuality to our own work – and that we don’t have bosses!). And we developed a new tool, the Cooperation Town Starter Pack, to help demystify the process of setting up a self-organised food co-op. 

The pack uses simple and accessible language to describe the different actions and processes organisers can use to start a local food co-op – from finding a space to recruiting new members, ordering food to ideas on how to share it, which are based on need, not a transaction. 

It contains a simplified consent decision making chart, easy to reproduce resources, such as a proposed agenda for the co-op founding meeting and templates for a collective shopping list and a members register. It even includes an ‘elevator pitch’, which organisers can use when going door knocking on their estate or chatting to potential members at the shops, the job centre or the kids playground. 

The pack is less of a manual and more of an invitation, with prompts and questions (‘is my co-op part of the wider community?’; ‘which methods of communication am I comfortable using?’) to inspire and give confidence to less experienced organisers. But it can also be used as a step-by-step guide by people who have never organised in their community, with help available by email or zoom and, at a later stage, on an online forum open to Cooperation Town organisers everywhere. 

Since the pack launched in early September 2020, we heard from groups in Sheffield and Newcastle, Waltham Forest and Tower Hamlets, Leicester, Staffordshire and North Wales, with new requests for information and support coming in daily. We hit a nerve and we want to make sure we can deliver. 

To do that, we are launching a fundraising campaign, with the aim to raise £24K by Christmas. Money raised through this crowdfunding appeal will help us unlock funding from trusts and foundations (they only give you money if you already have some!), which means that small contributions will go much further. 

Funds will be used to pay towards creating and distributing resources, organising training, help with logistics, providing seed funding to new groups and covering basic overheads and running costs.

Please support our fundraiser on opencollective.com/cooperation-town. A regular donation will help us plan ahead and be better prepared for the next phases of the current crisis. 

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter @CooperationTown

Shiri Shalmy

Co-organiser, Cooperation Town


Photos by Karishma Puri