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Life without supermarkets: forget posh organic shops; check out food co-ops

Laura Laker

13th July, 2010

To keep prices down, Laura shops around and gives food co-ops a whirl...

At some point this week any wishy-washy ideas I had about an idyllic life of local shopping have met with the practicalities of life as a supermarket avoider. I realised I need to be a lot savvier, if only for the sake of financial stability.

When I started this experiment, feelings of concern over the cost of alternative living evaporated in the excitement of small-scale shopping and all its wonders as I marched blindly to the organic shop with its grumpy staff and overpriced lentils.

After returning home with a bag of lentils costing £3.99, I stared into the cupboard at the price label, thinking: 'Did I actually buy those?'

I have since spread my net to a friendly Turkish shop nearby, finding inexpensive pesto, olives, tinned tomatoes and who knows what else I'd been paying through the nose for in my misplaced loyalty.

With a bit of cunning, shopping around can be squeezed into my weekly routine. The farmer's market coincided with meeting a friend, and regular foraging of random shops and charity shops means I'm carrying anything from apples to washing powder around in my handbag.

A new way of shopping

Deciding to give a food co-op a whirl I discovered that most in my area are reserved for those living on council estates, so in a spirit of investigation I headed off on my bike to one with a shop in South London.

Fareshares is open to anyone, and is open some weekday evenings and on Saturdays. Not sure what to expect, I took along a friend with a young child. None of her South London neighbours had heard of the place, a mere mile from their homes.

What we eventually found was a tiny shop on a residential street, with a few peaceful shoppers milling about between buckets of dried pulses, a wall of fruit and vegetables and shelves containing more dried goods, toiletries and jars of preserves flanking us on either side.

I took a pen, notepad and my own bags for the purpose of weighing up goods.

While we browsed, a hyperactive but very helpful local explained to us how things work, where to find the chocolate (not allowed in the vegan half of the shop) and why they had a bumper crop of peanut butter that week. The latter was from a customer order and when I showed an interest in a tray of baked beans on a distant shelf I was told this was set aside for another customer but I was welcome to make my own order for the following week.

Food co-ops order in bulk, giving the community something similar to buying power supermarkets enjoy. They are often run by locals and keep costs down by employing volunteers.

Fareshares refers to itself not as a shop but ‘an experiment in community'. It felt a far cry from those forced corporate slogans of large supermarkets. We eventually identified a woman sitting casually on a tall chair as the volunteer to take our money and offered her our list of purchases.

My friend, a supermarket devotee who views my alternate escapades with kindly interest, thought the prices there too high, though we both left in awe of the place. I found the prices reasonable and those extra pennies help create a vibrant community, where people are truly valued. Who needs miles of aisles, when you have that?

For more information on food coops and where to find on near you visit here

Laura Laker is a freelance journalist

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