How do you feel about large supermarkets these days? I’ve become increasingly frustrated with them and in particular since the pre-Christmas price wars that once again highlighted the fact that since their arrival in our slightly out-of-town shopping centres with their free parking, that village and town high streets have been slowly boarding up their windows and closing down.
It niggles me that supermarkets manipulate us to buy certain goods, that we repeatedly fall for their wiley ways, and that ultimately what we’ve gained in the convenience of being able to buy everything on our shopping lists under the one roof, we’ve lost by our village and town high streets losing their souls.
A big chunk of my childhood was spent growing up in a village store in a rural area of south-east of England. For years, Mum got up at dawn and for 6 days a week headed to one of the cold, draughty outbuildings in the 200-year-old property that was part of our shop and home. She’d take delivery of the piles of newspapers that were delivered, ensuring they were ready for the paper boys and girls to sort and post through doors before they headed on to school. On Sundays Dad and I completed the entire paper round delivery, giving mum and the rest of the gang and well needed lie-in.
During the weekdays, Dad would head off for work and Mum would walk with us down the long, quiet lanes past the fields of potato pickers to our school, before heading back home and opening up the shop. She’d spend the day chatting with customers, listening to all the village gossip, its highs and woes, and often times just being a point of contact for isolated men and women. When Mum locked the doors at night, she came in to the kitchen, lit the fires, prepared a home cooked dinner, before sending us off to bed to give her some quiet time to attend to the shop accounts, staff wages and other associated paperwork that are part and parcel of small business life.
Mum sold everything from fruit, veg, meat, bread, stationary, sweets, groceries, slippers, cement and kerosene and our weekly family outing was to the cash and carry. Mum was renowned for her home baked ham. My Dad also drove a van full of food around the village once a week, so that people without transport could top up their cupboards, offering an early model of food delivery that was commonplace back then. Ours was a typical village in its time, with a doctor’s surgery, a police station, a bakery, school, pub, church and post-office, as well as a mixture of council and privately owned properties. I learnt a lot about hard work and the importance of communities, growing up in the hive of one.
On reflection my upbringing is probably the key to what makes me so passionate about community now and my gives me the drive to help make necessary changes that might ensure our children’s survival over the coming years as we face the uncertainties of food sovereignty in a warming environment..
However, this isn’t a post about my childhood or the big, bold supermarkets that have become our blessing and our curse. It’s about a movement that’s rippling across Ireland that with our help, can make significant changes to the way we approach food and to individually become involved with the nexus way of thinking mentioned a short while ago on world water day. This post shares a few ideas about something we can do to claw back some of the best parts of a community lifestyle – the companionship and our relationship with food from producers to smaller shops and ultimately us, the consumers.
At the weekend a group of very committed people travelled from afar to share experiences and knowledge at the third CSA conference held in Cloughjordan Eco village.
Expertly facilitated by Davie Philips, we came together to talk about real, honest to goodness food in the form of community assisted agriculture (CSA), community food co-ops, community food buying schemes, community shops and community gardens.
If this is a new way of thinking to you and not something you’ve come across before, here’s a quick run down of just a few of the projects that are currently being run in Ireland that might give you ideas to initiate or get involved with in your area.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
Cloughjordan eco village were the first community I heard of that practice this model of producing food for the people, and are by no means the only one. If you’re interested in finding out more, their community farm runs tours and training events to promote and educate others about setting up and operating their own CSA.
The concept of a CSA projects is very simple. Instead of going to a shop and paying for your provisions as you need them, when you become a member of a CSA you pay a regular contribution (sometimes upfront) that covers the wages of the growers as well as the running costs and admin of the operation. In return, food is delivered to a central point for you to collect.
The food is fresh, it’s seasonal and the producers care passionately, not only about the sustainability of the farm and produce (in Cloughjordan’s case, the food is grown biodynamically and organically) but about growing the most optimally nutritious food they possibly can that hasn’t been diluted by industrialisation.
As a consumer and member of a CSA, you have the challenge of eating and cooking seasonally throughout the year, but the knowledge of exactly where your food has come from and how it was grown with no packaging, retail and very few transportation costs. You might even have given a few hours helping the farm out at a busy time and you’re certainly able to watch your food growing, but not have the worry of growing it yourself.
Community Co-ops/Groceries and Food Buying Schemes
The essence of a co-operative is that the business is owned by and run for the benefit of its members (and not directors and shareholders). Membership is made up of both the consumers who shop there and the workers who work there. Membership is open to all.
Dublin has an established food co-op and Oliver Moore recently shared the story in his blog of Limerick Community Grocery’s journey. It’s early days for them but the fact that the group involved with the project in Limerick are hoping to make their’s the first cooperative city, is inspirational.
Community Food Buyer Schemes
These schemes work on the premise that buying in bulk is cheaper. By pooling their buying power and ordering food in bulk direct from suppliers, a group of people can buy good food at a more affordable prices.
Small food co-ops or buying groups work by collecting together everyone’s orders in advance, other models are run more like food businesses and order the produce from suppliers and then sell it to their customers via stalls, bag or box schemes, mobile stores, shops or other types of outlet. OOOBY’s would be an example of this scheme working well, with one in operation in Wicklow at Carriag Dulra Permaculture and Organic Farm for some time now.
Community gardens are usually small food gardens where the work and the resulting produce is shared. They’re generally too small to provide food for all the gardeners to take home or to set up box schemes, but they’re good social spaces that encourage and educate people about food and in particular vegetable growing. People can learn how to grow their own food in community gardens and take the knowledge home with them and replicate it, or they can just drop in and get their hands dirty, happy that they are at least connecting with the soil on a weekly basis. Community gardens can be incubation tanks for other projects such as those mentioned above and are increasingly being used to teach people how to create small, social enterprise projects.
This is a non-profit member supported organisation that showcases sustainable agriculture and artisan food production, connecting producers with consumers, often educating the public where food comes from, how it’s produced and helping to create positive social change. Keith Bohanna of Biabeag has been working with Highbank Organic Orchards recently to hold regular “meet the food producer” slots that have been very popular. At these events small food producers honestly share the highs and lows of their profession and passion. As the community gardeners I worked with found out at Savour Kilkenny Food Festival last year, when consumers connect with food producers, we’re much more likely to buy from them.
CSA Conference Outcomes
There are many more initiatives happenings round the country and one of the outcomes of the CSA conference is that a list will be made of all the known ones that we will be able to find and link into. If there isn’t a food co-op, CSA or community garden near you, an opportunity to create one is being encouraged.
TV presenter Duncan Stewart is spearheading a “Get involved” campaign with local newspapers, a local sustainable community initiative that will encourage every community to become more food or energy aware. The scheme hopes that projects will link up and to a certain extent, compete with one another, and that all the knowledge learnt can be shared.
The Get Involved campaign will give every one of us the opportunity to become more connected at community level and offer us the chance to take back some control over what we eat and how it’s produced.
It will only work if we do as the campaign title suggests and “get involved”. I for one, am really looking forward to hearing more and supporting the community gardens I work with to come up with ideas for this initiative and I hope you will too. I would love to see a CSA scheme set up in my own area but whether it happens or not will depend upon the will of the people.
So what do you think? Am I living in the romantic past or do you think we have it in us to take back control of our food systems in time to survive the challenges global warming will throw at us? We live on a small island with a small population that’s more than capable of feeding itself. Have we got it in us to do it, to make the necessary changes and to reconnect with our food?