How Oxford students are providing affordable, ethically sourced food for the local community.


By Caroline Jackson

Food costs. It costs the consumer, the supplier and the producer — and it costs environmentally, too. It is not something anyone, anywhere, can ignore. 

At the start of the 2012 Michaelmas term, eight student members of Oxford University acted on this imperative to establish OxCo-op. Their aim was to provide a new source of affordable, sustainable and ethically sourced food for the Oxford community and, in doing so, "change the way we think about food consumption". In a market where much of the food supply chain, from field to table, is controlled by global multi-nationals, and at a time when increasing food poverty is rising fast up the domestic political agenda, OxCo-op remains student-run but strives to offer a feasible alternative to the big-name supermarkets. 

Like other, similar models, OxCo-op is owned by its members and managed in a non-hierarchical, democratic manner. Now with approximately 150 members, each of whom pays £2 for life membership, OxCo-op fulfills an average of 30 orders each week during University term time. Orders are made and paid for online by Sunday midnight for collection the following Friday afternoon from Oxford Hub in Turl Street, where OxCo-op volunteers also host a weekly pop-up shop. Its popularity is growing, with turnover reaching £2,000 during Michaelmas 2013, equalling that of the previous three terms combined. 

Lottie Dodwell, one of OxCo-op's original founders and now its orders co-ordinator, is a second year undergraduate reading Biology at St Peter's. She arrived in Oxford already experienced in running a fair trade ice cream parlour and immediately recognised demand for, and an opportunity to provide, the types of high quality, ethically responsible products more usually found in less accessible, specialist shops. 

Describing OxCo-op as "tailored to students", continual innovation is her explanation for OxCo-op's growth. In Hilary 2014, for example, it introduced a refill scheme whereby customers bring in their own containers to collect various products, typically cereals and pasta, so reducing packaging costs and wastage. Last term saw a one-off 'big bulk bike' free delivery promotion which captured new customers at the start of the academic year, followed by the introduction of organic fruit and vegetable boxes — competitively priced at either £5 or £10, but otherwise comparable to those provided by several national suppliers. 

Dodwell admits that all this fresh local produce is supplied "at a great discount" by Cultivate, an Oxford based co-operative with over 350 members who, collectively, farm 10 acres of land just outside the city without the use of artificial herbicides, pesticides or fertilisers. This partnership typifies the collaborative nature of OxCo-op's success. Without holding large stock or any of a small business's usual overheads, OxCo-op concentrates on its human capital. Ten volunteers per week are required to fulfil orders and Dodwell says their time, coupled with the free advice and physical space offered by Oxford Hub, is "invaluable". Oxford Hub, one of nine such organisations nationwide, is part of a registered umbrella charity, Student Hubs, which links students to specific volunteering projects to facilitate "student-powered social change".

Oxco-op buys the rest of its small range in bulk from the much larger, Bristol-based Essential Trading Co-operative. Adding a mark-up of only 5% to cover the minimal costs of Freshers' Fair marketing, website and packaging, OxCo-op is proving that not-for-profit is viable and that trade can be fair. Either for themselves, or by splitting the cost with others, customers can buy as much as 10kg of organic pasta for £16.80 — or as little as a single, 400g tin of organic, chopped tomatoes for 70 pence. Like for like, there's small difference between the price of these premium products from OxCo-op or, where available, the main supermarkets. It has this term begun to supply some of its products, including 'welfare teas', to other local small businesses, such as the Hog Roast Café in South Oxford and various JCRs and MCRs within the University. 

OxCo-op's success contrasts with that of a similar Oxford enterprise. Opened just 4 months earlier, The People's Supermarket at 124 Cowley Road was modelled on its London namesake which, in turn, modelled itself on the Park Slope Co-op of Brooklyn, New York. While TPS, as it's known, continues to trade in London, its Oxford outpost closed at the end of November 2013 after 16 months. Sharing OxCo-op's principles, TPS customers were required to pay a £12 joining fee and volunteer 4 hours of their time per month in return for a 10% discount on products. 

Despite being open 7 days a week, offering a lively café and recycling unsold food into a range of ready meals was forced to shutter its doors. TPS's volunteer manager, Sarah Thorne, says closure "was more complicated than simply commercial rates and rent but not at all down to member enthusiasm or engagement.” She adds that she “was constantly amazed and inspired by people's energy and commitment to the project". TPS no longer operates a community supermarket but continues to organise events and encourage new ideas for social and environmental change. According to Thorne "it's a co-operative people want to be part of." 

So-called 'social supermarkets' are spreading. Company Shop, the UK's biggest re-distributor of surplus food and goods, opened its first, members-only subsidiary in Goldthorpe, South Yorkshire at the end of 2013. Called Community Shop, it sells goods discounted by up to 70 percent compared to their usual, high street prices. Members must live within a certain range of the shop and be in receipt of at least one of a range of specific welfare benefits to take advantage not only of the available goods but the 'Community Hub', an in-store area providing skills training. Location is key. Seven in ten of Goldthorpe's children, three times the national average, receive free school meals. Community Shop already has 500 members, similar to TPS Oxford, but aims to open a further 20 branches this year. 

There is, of course, the bigger picture behind these examples of socially responsible entrepreneurship. While the UK is the world's seventh largest economy, almost ten million people were living in relative poverty — defined by the European Union as having less than 60 percent of the average net income — by 2012. Adjusted for inflation, by June 2013 one in five British children were living in absolute poverty. 

Recently, 43 of the nation's Christian leaders, including 27 Anglican bishops, wrote an open letter to the government highlighting food poverty. Subsequently questioned on this in the House of Commons, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and architect of the government's welfare reforms, Ian Duncan Smith, referred to the Oxford food bank — a registered charity, founded in 2009, which now delivers up to 5,000 meals per week to those in Oxford living in food poverty — citing its organiser's frustration that the whole issue of free food has become "hopelessly politicised". Refuting the Archbishop of Canterbury's contention that government policy is condemning increasing numbers to poverty, Mr Duncan Smith poses a choice between dependency and responsibility. 

Co-operatives, social supermarkets and charity-funded food banks are increasingly integral to this challenging relationship, providing food with conscience. We should all be watching their progress — and Oxford is clearly as a good a vantage point as any.

Image by Carrie Black under Creative Commons license.