At the beginning of the year there were a few food co-ops in Leeds with Holbeck Foods even making it onto Hilary Benn’s electoral leaflet. It has now gone due to ‘lack of support’. With one paid worker and most of the shop being run by volunteers there were issues. Having one paid member of staff without a very well defined role caused some friction but the main problem was trying to run a co-op outside of Chapel Allerton, Headingley or Leeds centre.
Oblong Food Co-op has suffered a similar fate with only one person running the co-op it became too much and folded in September. Considering Leeds lost Beano Wholefoods back in 2007 after a move from New Briggate to a larger shop in North Street (under pressure due to re-development of The Grand Theatre), fewer customers and a co-op membership of just two meant large debts and eventual bankruptcy. Beano was a feature of Leeds since 1978 with a large base of support but the co-op only realised its finical situation too late to ask for support.
In the town centre there is now "Out of this World" which sells wholefoods and fair-trade goods. This is not a workers’ co-operative but a consumer co-operative and possibly owes its continued success to its prime location, in the Leeds Church Institute building (having friends in high places perhaps having given a competitive advantage over Beano). There are other health-food shops around Leeds, but none of them are co-ops either.
The Green Action Food Co-op in Leeds University Union is perfect for people who work need the University of Leeds. They have helped support other co-ops, run an allotment and try to show students and the local community a way of buying food that is less dependant on capitalism. Green Action started 15 years ago and now old members are involved in projects all over, working at Seeds for Change, Footprint, Unicorn and much more. Having a place to buy food which is not focused on making money but is far more interested in fostering links among people has many added benefits. The space becomes as much of a social space as a money making space.
A group of people have been meeting over the last month to discuss ideas for and to start planning the setting up of a Little London and Woodhouse food co-op. Those involved so far have a number of different motivations for the project which centre on the basic fact that there is very poor availability of quality fresh fruit and vegetables in this inner city area. The key aims that have been agreed upon (with the help of a visioning session run by Sustain’s regional food co-ops worker) are to provide affordable, accessible and high quality fresh fruit and vegetables in the area, and also to source produce locally where possible. It wasn’t difficult to reach an agreement on this, everyone felt quite strongly that it was far more important to prioritise the affordability over whether or not something is organic, for example. It is not yet entirely clear what shape the co-op might take or what model will be used and the group are currently carrying out a survey to find out what residents of the area would like to see happen. As well as simply selling fruit and veg, the co-op would like to be a hub for the community, bringing people together and linking in with other activities in the area, for example breakfast/lunch clubs and cooking classes. It seems likely that to begin with the co-op might operate a few afternoons a week in different locations in the area (the Woodhouse Community Centre where Oblong is based being one of them) selling just fruit and veg at cost price, and in the future maybe start selling dried goods if a permanent storage space can be found. Once the co-op has a better idea of exactly how it will operate the group will probably apply for some start-up funding. The co-op will probably be entirely volunteer-run to begin with but with the possibility of finding funding for a paid part-time co-ordinator further down the line. There’s lots of energy for making this co-op happen and Oblong have offered their support so hopefully it’ll be up and running in early 2011!