Nourishing people and planet: the cooperative revolution

Driven by a growing awareness of sustainability and ethical consumption, cooperatives, or 'coops', are reshaping the way people shop and source their food. These member-owned businesses are empowering consumers by offering an alternative to the traditional supermarket, which often puts profit before people and planet.

In an interview with Chrystelle Verhoest, from wAnderCoop, a Brussels-based cooperative, we explore how cooperatives could help everyone get the healthy food they need and how they have the potential to make the food system fairer and more sustainable.

Amidst the cobbled streets and grand architecture that Belgium is famed for, a quiet revolution is brewing. It's not a political uprising, but rather a social movement, putting a shift in the way we think about our food. Welcome to the coop revolution.

Cooperatives, or 'coops', as they are more commonly known, are driven by a growing consciousness about sustainability and ethical consumption. They transform the way residents’ shop and source their food, all the while holding the potential to change our entire outlook on our weekly shop.

Yet, this quiet revolution isn't just about food; it's also about community and sustainability. It's about creating a more just and fair food system for everyone. But let's be clear: it’s not just in Belgium that this is happening. Across Europe, cooperatives are on the rise, with countries such as France, Ireland, and Luxembourg setting up this alternative retail model to sell high-quality food at affordable prices.

So, could cooperative supermarkets be the key to unlocking a healthier and more equitable food system, one that contributes to a thriving economy of wellbeing?

Creating a societal change

In the heart of Anderlecht, a municipality known for its football culture but perhaps not as known for its cooperative spirit, lies wAnderCoop, a citizen-led supermarket taking the lead towards a more conscious and responsible food system using sustainable and ethical food practices.

Established during the height of the pandemic in 2020, this cooperative supermarket is working to create societal change, by promoting solidarity with local producers and market gardeners to ensure people are supported to eat healthily while respecting the environment, all at fair and affordable prices.

“Our vision is that the cooperative enables us to decide what we want to see on the shelves of the supermarket. While we cannot guarantee that everything we sell is sourced locally, we carefully select our suppliers based on our shared values. We have developed a charter that guides our product selection process”, explains Chrystelle Verhoest, one of the founding members of the cooperative.

“I became involved in wAnderCoop because I recognised that my local area's shopping landscape needed a paradigm shift, one that ventured beyond the confines of traditional retail. My primary motivation was, and still is, to foster connections within my community, based on shared values, creating opportunities for social interaction, all while fulfilling my everyday shopping needs,” she continues.

More transparency is needed about the lifecycle and cost structure of food products, so that people understand what the positive and negative impacts of their consumption are on the environment, on producers and transformers.

Collaborative spirit

Words such as 'value', 'motivation', 'community', and 'connection' don't often come to mind when we think about our current food systems, but 'coops' are member-owned and operated stores that offer more than just groceries. They are in fact hubs for community engagement, bringing people together to share ideas, skills, and resources and providing inclusive spaces that address hard-hitting issues such as loneliness.

wAnderCoop is a thriving cooperative, having grown to over 400 members in just three years, and prides itself on its strong sense of community. It is a place where families join forces, spanning generations, to support the cooperative's projects, fostering a strong, collaborative spirit.

“We are a participatory cooperative, which means that we are not only owners and clients of the supermarket, but we are also workers," explains Chrystelle. “Each of us dedicates 3 hours every 4 weeks to work in the shop or perform alternative tasks that are better suited for our health and family conditions or the planning of the people. We value participatory decision-making, with several governance organs or tools: thematic workgroups (WG), general assemblies, and ‘work-chopes’. We also have our super WG Squad, our employees, who are making sure that the operations are running smoothly and that the several projects keep on track,” she continues.

By actively participating in decision-making, members feel empowered to contribute to their community's success. Community extends beyond the supermarket shelves as it includes their commitment to support local producers to ensure access to high-quality products, not only to strengthen the local economy, but this undeniable sense of shared purpose enriches the lives of everyone involved.

“Emerging during the COVID-19 crisis meant that our project offered a lifeline of social connection during a time of isolation. Meetings, held virtually or in carefully controlled environments, fostered a sense of camaraderie as we collaboratively crafted the shop equipment. These gatherings were a source of much needed connection as we came together to share our creativity and passion for a common project.

"At wAnderCoop, fostering a sense of community is paramount to us. We actively promote a welcoming environment where individuals can connect and collaborate, whether it's during shared work shifts or through participation in working groups,” explains Chrystelle.

We are currently only reaching a small part of the population. We would like to see cooperative models become accessible to everyone including those most vulnerable. However, as long as low-cost consumption goods, with poor environmental and social performance are available, this will not work. Our model cannot overcome the current shortcomings in the global market economics, or education and social policies on its own.

©wAnderCoop 2023

Challenges

COVID-19 and other crises, such as the war in Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis, have in many ways changed how we, as the public, governments, and policymakers, look at system approaches. While the pandemic exposed the frailty of our health systems and the need for systemic change to ensure fair access to health for everyone, the war in Ukraine has exposed the frailty of our food systems. Our current food systems are designed to champion big industries, which have even bigger marketing budgets, and influence how we eat. This dominance creates significant barriers to accessing healthy and nutritious food, particularly in underserved communities.

“Protecting the underserved members of our community remains a challenge for us and we cannot claim we can address the needs of those most in need. We do select nutritious and qualitative food, with fixed and transparent margins on our products, but our model is not yet adequate for groups that are vulnerable because of low incomes or complicated family contexts. This is a challenge faced by most of the cooperatives in Brussels. There is some experience like in BeesCoop, where they collaborate with the Public Center for Social Action of the City of Brussels (CPAS) to enable access to the shop for certain people,” Chrystelle continues.

Better food systems: a win-win for everyone

The healthiest option should be the easiest option, so why isn’t it?

Across Europe, initiatives are working to crack this glass ceiling and overcome the barriers that prevent us all from accessing the highest nutritional form of food. The FEAST collaboration, for example, is working to help Europe move towards a better food system that benefits everyone— systems that support transitions to healthy and sustainable diets for the many and not just the few. But this is no mean feat, as our food systems are extremely complex.

Let's take small and medium farmers, for example. Despite their essential role in producing nutritious food, these farmers often struggle to compete against large manufacturers that have the resources and capital to dominate the market. We, as consumers, have fewer choices when it comes to food, and the food that is available is often unhealthy and ultra-processed. Sadly, this exemplifies the broken nature of our food systems, which are designed to maximise profits at the expense of our health, leaving many with no choice but to turn to the unhealthiest options to survive.

"We strive to offer a wider range of options to people with different incomes while maintaining our high standards for environmental and social quality. It's important to remember that in this model, the lower the cost of food, the less the producer earns. Farmers are often at the bottom of the revenue ladder, making them a vulnerable community too," explains Chrystelle.

"In our current system, large agricultural corporations can undercut smaller, local, and often more sustainable farmers and food producers. Unhealthy food is often more affordable and accessible than healthy food."

"But at wAnderCoop, we partner with local vegetable farmers. Since the average cost of production is higher for smaller farms than for larger ones, applying a fixed margin to all products would make these products less competitive. We therefore decided to reduce the margin on these specific products and communicated this transparently to our members," she concludes.

Thriving people, thriving planet

Despite not being able to take on the big cooperations, wAnderCoop is slowly but surely transforming the food system in Anderlecht, having earned the prestigious Finance Solidaire Financiering label in Belgium. This label connects investors with socially impactful projects, fostering the social economy to build a more equitable and sustainable world.

Of course, solidarity financing can play a central role in supporting an economy of wellbeing—an economic concept designed to focus on measuring and improving the wellbeing of people and the planet—by supporting cooperative supermarkets such as wAnderCoop and promoting cooperative ownership to create a more inclusive economy that benefits everyone.

These supermarkets embody the very essence of an economy of wellbeing, with strong values and principles that foster community empowerment, sustainable practices, fair pricing and transparency, healthier food choices, as well as community education and engagement. After all, the health of our planet and our own health are not disassociated factors; they are forever intertwined.

"There are different options out there to support better food systems, such as farmers' solidarity purchasing groups (GASAP), direct gathering from the field, urban farms, etc. We are part of these alternatives to mainstream retail systems. We are developing communities of people who are willing to change from passive to active consumers. A key difference in our model is the participatory aspect. We are owners and workers in addition to the client role in wAnderCoop," explains Chrystelle.

We strive to offer a wider range of options to people with different incomes, while maintaining our high standards for environmental and social quality. It's important to remember that in this model, the lower the cost of food, the less the producer earns. Farmers are often at the bottom of the revenue ladder, making them a vulnerable community too.

Make the healthiest option the easiest option

Although cooperative supermarkets have a strong model to tackle our current food systems, they are simply not large enough to take on the mega companies alone, who drive our food systems, as Chrystelle explains:

"We are currently only reaching a small part of the population. We would like to see such a cooperative model become accessible to everyone, including underserved communities. However, as long as low-cost consumption goods with poor environmental and social performance are available, this will not work. Our model cannot overcome the current shortcomings in global market economics,  education and social policies on its own."

True cooperative supermarkets have the potential to revolutionise our local food systems, but to do this, it goes far beyond the local community. Policymakers have the potential to grow these models by providing further financial and regulatory support, as well as promoting their benefits to the public.

"More transparency is needed about the lifecycle and cost structure of food products so that people understand what the positive and negative impacts of their consumption are (on the environment, producers and transformers)."

"There are subsidies and financial mechanisms today to support the development of such participatory cooperative supermarkets. Even though we strongly believe that our model should become autonomous thanks to the growing number of members and our incredible staff, such financial support is important to enable major investments and job creation."

Making it accessible is the challenge. But this challenge could be overcome if the right support is in place, helping to make the healthiest option the easiest option and accessible to everyone, all while increasing community engagement and ensuring the future of our planet is protected.

©wAnderCoop 2023
©wAnderCoop 2023

EuroHealthNet: from vision to action: seizing the opportunity for health transformation

As we approach 2024, a year that is set to be one of the biggest election years in history, the significance of these polls stretches far beyond the European Union. As The Economist recently pointed out, "there is more to democracy than just voting." It requires action and listening to the voices of those that policymakers and decision-makers represent.

The European elections hold the potential to be a real catalyst for transformative change. Building upon EuroHealthNet's recently released priorities for the 2024-2029 landscape, we must seize this pivotal moment to prioritise the fundamental drivers of health—the conditions that shape people's lives.

At the heart of our vision lies the creation of a Vice-President for an economy of wellbeing within the European Commission. This crucial role would champion the health and wellbeing of European citizens, ensuring that every policy decision aligns with this overarching goal. Alongside this critical role, we also advocate for the development of sustainable and healthy food systems to ensure nutritious, wholesome food is accessible to all. This includes:

  • Label UPF and high-HSSF foods with nutrient profiles.
  • Regulate the marketing and advertising of HFSS foods and sugary drinks to children.
  • Implement a sustainable food system legislative framework.
  • Create an EU-wide sustainable food systems scoreboard.
  • Promote healthy food environments and provide a legal instrument to allow Member States to refuse unhealthy businesses.

We believe that everyone should have access to nutritious food. That's why we're calling for the development of sustainable and healthy food systems that make it easy for people to eat healthy. These systems should focus on growing food locally, reducing pollution, and making sure that everyone has access to healthy food choices.

By taking these steps, we can create a Europe where everyone is healthy and wellbeing is not just a distant vision but a reality. The European elections in 2024 are a chance for us to make this a reality.

Ruth Thomas
+ posts

Ruth joined the EuroHealthNet team in April 2022 as Communications Officer.

She holds a BA Hons degree in Print Journalism from the University of Gloucestershire (UK) and has worked in the not-for-profit sector for over ten years. Ruth has applied her communication skills to a number of positions including for an energy trade association in Brussels and as part of a National Research Network (Sêr Cymru / Stars Wales), where she was based at a UK university.

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