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Worker-Member Food Coops : the public libraries of food.

Through community cooperation, transform supermarkets into “public libraries” of food; pressure points that can help reorient food systems.

Photo of Tom Boothe
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Lead Applicant Organization Name

The Participative Food Coop Alliance

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 10+ years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Paris

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

France

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Metropolitan France. Our project already covers this large area. We're helping coops from Brest to Toulon, from Nancy to Bayonne.

What country is your selected Place located in?

France

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Most members of the Participative Food Coop Alliance live, shop and eat in Paris, France. The work we’ve already done to partially achieve our vision began here simply because we were motivated to make our neighborhood and our world a better places to live. In a wider sense, the place chose us. After the success of our “public library of food” in Paris, without any encouragement on our part, we’ve been contacted by more than 30 groups from all corners of  France who wish to replicate our model. This includes municipalities and other public entities. A group from almost every major city in France has gotten in touch with us and we receive a new request for help about every two weeks. This enthusiasm surprised us a bit, and is an expression of this place, France. The cooperative on which our Parisian project — the first of its kind in Europe — is based has been thriving for more than four decades in the New York, but has generated almost no interest in the rest of the United States. The importance of food and the pleasures of the table in France, as well as a generalized mainstream dislike for commercial supermarket chains here explains to us this disproportionate enthusiasm. Our model of cooperative supermarket has found its home in this country.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

France is deservedly reputed for its gastronomic culture. The pleasures of the table and spending time at the table are values still organically integrated into daily life. More great cheeses and wine come from here that from any other county. People count on quality, daily fresh bread. However, In an honest snapshot of contemporary France, how this gastronomic culture is currently situated in society gives rise to more concern that celebration. Who is really financially able to access this culture ? Who has the time to do so ? Are agricultural practices and trends implemented with an eye to preserve and add to this gastronomic tradition ?

France is climatologically and topographically diverse, and a major agricultural world producer. Historically the country’s consistent wealth finds its roots in agriculture. It is the 2nd largest producer of wine in the world, 3rd largest of milk, 5th largest of sugar and wheat with important productions of fruit and meat. The intensity of this agricultural activity regularly facilitates crises : bird flu, nutrient depletion of soils, water contamination and “toxic algae” resulting from intensive pig farming, mad cow disease. The county’s agricultural establishment is conservative and was late in supporting conversion to organic agriculture. The result is that France’s production cannot meet its demand for organic agriculture and must reply on significant imports from Spain and Italy.

In France, where 1% of the population owns a quarter of the country’s wealth, the cost of living, especially of housing, is rising rapidly and the impact can be seen on food spending. In 1960, French households spent 35% of their income on food, in 2014 they spent 20%. Similar to how struggling Americans use credit cards to maintain the illusion that they still belong to the middle class (that culture’s highly held value), the more than two-thirds of French people who shop in super or hypermarkets, maintain the illusion that they are still participating in their gastronomic culture by purchasing products that share the names of authentic culinary references, but are in fact dilute industrial knock-offs. Mass produced Roquefort, frozen cordon bleu, coq au vin in a can. These industrial versions are often highly processed with negative long term effects on health.

The at once hopeful and tragic note is that, generally speaking, French people (that is France’s white, north and “black” African, and Asian populations) CAN tell the difference between quality and industrial products, and they would like more than almost anything else to be sitting around with family and friends enjoying the former. The question is economic : not enough money for the authentic versions, not enough free time to hunt them down in as many little boutiques and less and less time to cook.


What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

640000

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

67000000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

2020: France is the second largest consumer in Europe of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Despite recent government efforts to reduce such usage, sales have continued to rise year after year, fueled by an obsolete post-war agricultural model aimed at increasing yields and benefiting the largest landholders. The consequences of this model, promoted for many decades by the European Common Agricultural Policy, are now well established: soil erosion, pollution of underground aquifers, destruction of hedgerows and biodiversity, catastrophic decline in the number of pollinating insects, earthworms, microorganisms.

Two hundred farms disappear every week in France due to the inability of new farmers to pay increasing high prices for land. In the same way, the growing concentration and power of the modern retail industry has been accompanied by a decline in the number of independent retailers and wholesalers. Small shopkeepers are driven out of business. Farmers find themselves at the mercy of chain-store buyers seeking to increase profit margins by driving down the price paid to producers.

French consumers, faced with stagnating wages, find it increasingly difficult to pay premium prices for high-quality food, the foundation not only a healthy diet but of a whole way of life and system of values. As the people whose culture gave birth to the “gastronomic meal,” a ritual that has, in the meantime, been included in the UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, this deprivation is experienced as culturally alienating.

2050: We don't pretend to be able to predict the specific challenges that our food system might be facing thirty years from now; we expect that it will be facing such enormous turmoil, both environmental, social and economic, that it would be unreasonable for anyone to make predicts about a kind of world in which humans have never lived. Recently, the United Nations Environment Program reported that the world is on track to producing 120% more fossil fuels than would be consistant with limiting global average warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The only thing that appears predictable is that conditions for food production will become more and more unpredictable.

In 2003, the year a great heat wave killed over 35,000 people in France, many winemakers found themselves at a loss at harvest time. Parents, grandparents were consulted -- no one could remember a year in living history that could serve as a guide. The bearers of a tradition built on centuries of observation and adaptation to specific, regional, micro-climatological conditions, were confronted with a situation in which history provided no clues as to how to act.

As we grow accustomed to the United Nations' announcing, every year, that the past five years have been the hottest in world history, we can expect the French summer of 2003 to represent the new norm of abnormality. In this context, we believe that food systems must promote stability, and we believe that ours is inherently more stable than the current one.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Before La Louve cooperative opened in the north of Paris, no stores in the neighborhood sold organically-grown food. It was impossible to buy good quality meat and cheese. Several organic retailers had considered the location, but all had rejected it as unprofitable. And yet, as the cooperative's membership shows -- the majority live in close proximity to the store -- the need was there. Yet only by removing the profit motive, organizing themselves in the form of a consumer cooperative, and agreeing to work together to run a store, were residents able to meet this basis need: healthy food at affordable prices. People who had never eaten organic food, unable to pay prohibitive prices, were now eating like people in a higher tax bracket: the finest products in France at a price normally reserved for insipid imitations. Cooperators had a voice in determining what they ate, what type of agriculture they supported, and a voting share in a community business that could not be shut down by off-site managers or sold to the highest bidder. Producers or small distributors who, until then, had been selling small amounts of product to a scattered network of clients, could now count on receiving large orders on a consistent basis. A local coffee roaster was able to move to a larger space and upgrade its equipment, largely thanks to the cooperative's ability to help the company's cash flow by paying its bills immediately. The store quickly became the largest single-store client for almost all of its suppliers, and in turn members received even better prices.

Communities in other cities in France, eager to obtain similar results for themselves, are beginning to operate successful stores. Inevitably, when these cooperatives meet to exchange about their experiences, the question arises: how could we work together to influence production? to buy collectively? Again, these ideas have a long history. Exactly one hundred years ago, Ernest Poisson, then director of the National Federation of French Consumer Cooperatives, described how consumer demand, organized and articulated by consumer cooperatives, might become the organizing force for an entirely new system of food production and distribution, which he named the Cooperative Republic. We also hope to encourage the creation of cooperative warehouses, like those in the St Paul-Minneapolis area, and producer-owned cooperative wholesalers, like those in Lancaster Country, Pennsylvania.


High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

The implementation of our vision has been underway for some time now. We’ll start with how the Place and lives are already different.

For 5000 people in the 18th arrondissement in Paris, the psychological connotation of their local supermarket is practically the polar opposite of what it used to be. No more a gantlet of aggressive marketing, bad music and depressing industrial food, but a trusted destination point where one likes to spend time that is wholly and energetically dedicated to making people eat and live as well as possible. Because our cooperative system allows us to sell quality food at very, very low prices, EVERYONE who shops with us eats better. The change is often radical : people who ate no organic food are now able to do so almost exclusively, without spending more. Modest income households can regularly enjoy the authentic culinary treasures of France. This makes people happier and healthier and they tell us about it all the time. Farmers and producers that we work with are paid fairly and on time. When they are having difficulties, we can pay them in advance. People spend time working, learning and shopping together in our supermarket and they make friends, sometimes get married. Maybe most important is that our project gives many people hope. Our system really solves, on a small scale, some major problems. People see that the sentence “by taking things into our own we can start to change the world” is not just an empty cliché.

It’s with the propagation of our model that cumulative effects could make serious changes  further up the the food supply chain. A hundred, or 500 supermarkets that open the door to tens of thousands people to eating quality, sustainably produced food, that demand, could have an important impact on the health of soils and farmers in France. The same demand could create fairer, cooperative ownership in food distribution structures : farmers and workers reaping all the benefits of their work.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Cooperative community ownership of supermarkets, and regular participation in their daily operations, can transform them into thriving social and educational gathering spaces that drastically increase access to healthy, high quality food and into powerful levers for effecting change at production and policy levels.

Our vision is the expansion and maturation of a set of practices that have shown remarkable results for several decades, and that belong to an even longer tradition. The explanation of our vision begins with what has already been achieved.

Consumer food coops began in the early 19th century. The simple, but transformational set of ideas was : shoppers become the unique owners-shareholders of their own food shops, all shopper-owners have one vote and no more, profits are redistributed to each shopper-owner according to the amount purchases they’ve made.

The 1960s and 70s saw a wave of “worker-member” food coops in the US and Europe. To the basic model was added the practice that all members must also contribute regularly to daily operations…running the cash register, stocking shelves, etc. By the 1980s, almost all of these experiments had either failed, or removed the requirement of member participation, finding it too hard to manage.

The one exception was the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn. Today this worker-member coop counts 17,000 working members, $55 million in annual sales and provides high-quality, healthy food at extremely low prices. It is one of the most financially successful supermarkets in the US.

Since the 1980s, many attempts have been made to replicate their model, and all have failed… until recently. In 2016, la coopérative La Louve opened in a working-class neighborhood of Paris and its success has generated a frankly shocking amont of enthusiasm for the model in France. La Louve already counts 5000 members, over €7 million in annual sales, and is profitable. The model has won the support of institutions, media and politicians of all persuasions, and groups from more than 30 cites in France have contacted that cooperative for help setting up their own worker-member food coop. The Participative Food Coop Alliance was created by La Louve and Park Slope to deal with the volume of this demand in France.

We call the collection of best practices that have allowed the 2 cooperatives to flourish where others have failed “The Park Slope Model”. Its basic features are : Shopping is open only to members. All members must invest 100 euros / dollars to join, 10 for welfare recipients. All members must participate in the operations of the coop for 3 consecutive hours every 4 weeks : stocking shelves, cleaning, cutting cheese, receiving deliveries, etc. Members who are not physically able to participate are not required to. A small staff of paid employees manage the operations of the coop : purchasing, accounting, organization of member participation. All profits are re-invested in the coop or in the community.

We believe that our vision of supermarkets becoming “public libraries of food” has been partially realized through what has already been put in place at our two coops. Let’s begin with those aspects.

Expanding access to healthy, high-quality food. Because members ensure 80% of store labor, overhead costs are drastically reduced, allowing the coop to add a very low mark-up to its products. In 90% of cases, an organic fruit or vegetable at La Louve is less expensive than its non-organic counterpart at the conventional supermarket next door. The best artisanal versions of France’s classic cheeses are sold for around half of their normal selling price. Ethical fish products sell for about 40% less than in other stores, high-end organic teas sell for 60% less, organic, fair-trade chocolate, 20% less. The savings vary by product, but are significant and store-wide. Such prices remove the last and most difficult hurdle to gaining access to high-quality, healthy food for many of coop members. A quarter of Louve members come from low-income households. Too numerous to count are testimonies of how the coop completely transformed how members eat. This expanded access to quality food has an environmental impact as well. We estimate our growing coop sells more than a half a million additional organic products per year that would not have been sold without pricing our capabilities.

Supporting small-scale, localized production. Cooperatives of our model, naturally draw on and sustain local foodsheds. At La Louve, ten tons of mainly local, organic produce move through the store every week. We work with local farmers, winemakers, cheesemakers, coffee roasters, florists, bakers, and dozens of distributers and producer cooperatives. We fair prices and pay our supplier bills on time, even in advance if asked.

Convivial gathering and educational space. Historically speaking, the food market is one of the most important social gathering spaces, across cultures. Confronted with the fact that more than two-thirds of French people do their shopping in super or hypermarkets, we must admit that this social archetype has for the most part been lost. (Who would suggest spending Saturday afternoon with friends at a conventional supermarket ?) The participatory aspect of your model completely transforms the supermarket structure. Members work together every four weeks and people from diverse backgrounds get to know each other. While cutting cheese, members discuss food, politics, their lives and challenges. Isolated elderly or unemployed people often participate more than they are required to, finding at the coop solid social ties.
From this informal base, more formal social and educational structures spring up naturally.  At both coops, there is a year-round schedule of member-run cooking classes, food-issue awareness workshops, films and concerts, events for kids. This culture of self-reliance and knowledge sharing directly impacts the range of products sold by the coop… a range that is determined by suggestions and purchases of members.

Culinary Culture preserved. France is lucky to have a rich gastronomic tradition. Access to the authentic products integral to this tradition is another story. The high price of quality food means that the majority supermarket-shopping classes in France are eating and drinking dilute, industrialized versions of their Camembert, or Baratte butter. A 16-22 month Comté cheese, made by one of its best artisanal producers, usually costs 36€ per kilo. At La Louve, it costs 19,63€. This is about the same price as a 6 month industrial Comté at a conventional supermarket. This pattern is repeated throughout the store. Perhaps even more than cooking classes and workshops, this “invisible” education is very important. Without even knowing it, members’ children grow with the complex, intense tastes of authentic products. This not only allows them to reflexively identify and reject industrial versions of products, but it trains them to eat more slowly. When food has an intense and developing flavor, we keep it in our mouths longer. Dilute products encourage swallowing.

Food Waste. The rates of food waste at our cooperatives are low. This has to do with high volumes of sales in relatively small spaces, attention to temperatures of food storage, but also our structure of ownership. At La Louve, we put countdown labels on our shelves for expiring products : “I expire in 3 days, one day, tonight”. At conventional supermarket, customers would tend to flee such products, at La Louve, this practice accelerates the sales. We in discussions with the French government to allow our coops to freeze and sell soon to expire meat, a potentially significant waste reducing practice not currently allowed.

Open-source ERP. La Louve transposed the complex store management software into an integrated open-source solution that it shares with new coops. Particularly sophisticated is the module which can manages the work-schedules of tens of thousands of members.

That is what a single worker-member coop can already, achieve on its own. The culmination of our vision comes when “public libraries of food” are thriving throughout France.

The  collective demand of our coops will help us encourage the creation of food distributors with a different ownership structure. The organic produce distributors available to us in France are efficient but are owned by individuals for whom the interest is strictly financial (e.g. hedge fund). We wish to work with producer owned distribution coops, so that the profits stay with the farmers. For dry-goods, worker-owned coops such a Suma in England are the virtuous solution. For the difficult problem of getting products from small-scale producers, we’ve already discussed with local officials the possibility of a public, regional distributor where subsidies could help offset the price disadvantages experienced by small-scale actors due to lack of economies of scale. Once a thriving network of Park Slope model coops is in place, we will begin actively working on helping bring these structures into existence. 

Through the pooled resources of our cooperatives, we will hire researchers to create a compendium of information on all products one finds in a supermarket. On the websites of our coops, members and the public at large will be able to know : what are the ethical and gustative issues for a given category of food. Supermarkets in their current form are source of marketing, not of information. Our vision is that those who sell food are trusted experts on food at all levels.

The future that we want begins with finding in every neighborhood in France a community-owned supermarket run with an erudite benevolence that has transformed it into a social and cultural gathering space. The intelligent application the demand created by these “public libraires of food” will be a powerful and stable means for effecting positive change throughout France’s food systems.



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Knowledge is Power! good project a resourceful tool! all the best

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