In Camden, before Coronavirus, 20,000 people lived in food insecurity. This was not during a national emergency, but in a modern, supposedly democratic, wealthy country with decent infrastructure.

Poverty wages, parasitic landlords, and the lack of services which should be affordable – such as childcare, transport, health and education – leave people making choices between feeding their family, heating their home or paying their rent.

COVID-19 brought to the surface this huge poverty problem and illustrated it to people who weren’t aware of it before, or chose not to be. With the realisation that neighbours might be in difficulty, ‘mutual aid’ groups helped during the first lockdown and demonstrated the willingness of communities to come together and help each other. But delivering food in this way is neither sustainable nor a solution. Cooperatives, on the other hand, offer solidarity, not charity.

Back in 2019, Shiri Salmy and Katie Higgins started a food cooperative in Kentish Town, London, and began buying food in bulk with a few neighbours and sharing the savings. They also worked with the Felix Project which sources excess food from supermarkets and delivers to charities and schools. Very soon, the first cooperative grew larger and decided to split, developing a new model – CooperativeTown – a network of community-led co-ops organising on streets and estates across the country.

Each co-op is independent and the network helps to share ideas and resources, and support the start-up of new groups. They’ve developed a simple starter pack which you can go ahead and experiment with, and they are fund-raising to help new co-ops with any start-up costs, translate the starter pack into various languages, and scale up the network.

Shiri believes that when you start organising with your neighbours you realise you have much more in common than just needing to eat. Working together on other issues you find you’re stronger as a group, and able to mobilise against other threats to the community.

When the project began, no-one foresaw the pandemic, but coops have risen to the new challenges because they are adaptable, small-scale, knowledgeable about their own communities and all members benefit from much cheaper food bills while at the same time helping others.

The project has attracted the attention of Preston Council, one of the most progressive local authorities in the UK, who want to roll it out in their area. Shiri Salmy says that in terms of movement-building, we need to think on all these levels, “from the grassroots level, 20 people on a block coming together to buy their sacks of potatoes, to city-wide and beyond.” She wants to see in a food coop in every street in every town.

Finding that this kind of community organising is beneficial to everyone, her hope is that it can be applied to other issues. When they come to demolish your estate, close your hospital, or your nurseries, you are stronger as a group and can resist more effectively by already being organised.

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