‘Labour lost the election so everyone got motivated!’ – Kentish Town food co-op inspires nationwide movement

Shiri, right, with a volunteer at the Free Food Larder. Picture: Cooperation Town

Shiri, right, with a volunteer at the Free Food Larder. Picture: Cooperation Town - Credit: Archant

A food co-op project launched on a Kentish Town estate has sparked a nationwide movement in the wake of the General Election result.

Food collected for the Free Food Larder event in December. Picture: Cooperation Town

Food collected for the Free Food Larder event in December. Picture: Cooperation Town - Credit: Archant

Disheartened social activists on the left have mobilised following the Tory landslide last month and are now focusing on grassroots movements to help those affected by austerity.

One of the outlets for that is Cooperation Town, which now has branches from Edinburgh to Falmouth despite the initial project not yet being fully operational.

Launched by activist Shiri Shalmy on the Ingestre Road Estate where she lives, the idea is simple - friends, neighbours, form a group that sources food, ideally from a local charity, while also chipping in to buy household products in bulk.

Membership is, say, £2 a week, and Shiri said the aim is to reduce the weekly shop to that amount.

Shiri with guests at the event. Picture: Cooperation Town

Shiri with guests at the event. Picture: Cooperation Town - Credit: Archant

Having co-founded Antiuniveristy Now in 2015, Shiri is no stranger to community collaboration, and says this idea, inspired by Cooperation Jackson in the US, is another response to the need for grassroots movements.

She said: "It was clear to anyone in activism that we need to be organising in our immediate communities and that electoral democracy was not going to deliver, and it didn't.

"I'm involved in a lot of political organisations and the idea was not to go and fight our political enemies on the street [by protesting], that it was too late for that.

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"That should have been dealt with earlier. We should be in communities, in youth clubs, in churches and parks and workplaces."

Food donated for the event. Picture: Cooperation Town

Food donated for the event. Picture: Cooperation Town - Credit: Archant

Cooperation Town was a direct response to that need.

"People are poor and hungry, we know that," Shiri added. "There are endless food banks. But the kind of politics I am interested in is not charity, it is organising together.

"That's the difference between a food bank and a co-op. All of us pull together.

"There is already the infrastructure to provide free food in Tory austerity Britain because people are starving, so we will look to charities that source surplus food.."

Shiri says as well as subs, members should contribute an hour or so a week to helping out with ordering, delivering and sorting products.

In the week after the General Election, the first event, the Free Food Larder, was held to show people what Cooperation Town was about.

Shiri and two other organisers delivered 800 leaflets and knocked on hundreds of doors, explaining the idea to those who were resistant to taking free food and emphasising it wasn't a charity project.

The estate's community centre manager offered them the space and the group sourced 14 crates of food from Enfield charity The Felix Project, including vegetables, cakes, bread, juice and snacks. They also had donations of organic produce from Eden Farms, which has a stall at the local farmers market.

Other local businesses brought food along on the day and Shiri, fearing a lack of interest, contacted homeless projects saying they would likely have food to donate afterwards.

"But as soon as we opened people started coming in," she explained. "Families came with children, carers picked up supplies, the community centre manager packed bags to deliver to vulnerable housebound residents, people went out to remind their neighbours to come in.

"The place was busy the whole time with kids playing in the hall, elderly people chatting and playing board games, neighbours discussing recipes."

Some 40 households were given enough food for a week, tailored to their tastes but also including vegetables they wouldn't normally go for and tips on what to do with them.

It also brought life back to the estate's community centre, which like many has fallen out of use in recent years, and Shiri believes regular events would lead to more activities on the estate beyond the co-op.

"We didn't think it would go this big at first," she said. "But as soon as I started talking about it to friends and other activists everyone was interested.

"Then Labour lost the election so everyone got motivated! We've had emails, messages and tweets from all over the country."

Co-ops are now launching in Edinburgh, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, Hackney, Walthamstow, Falmouth and Tower Hamlets, with more on the way.

Though the projects will be self-organised and decentralised, there will be training for anyone who wants to become an "initiator" to ensure there is a network and some level of infrastructure.

That will be provided by co-op Radical Routes, while ethical collective Common Knowledge will be mapping the co-ops' journeys to ensure they remain sustainable.

A workshop will be held at the Ingestre Community Centre at 7pm on Monday, January 27 for anyone who want to set up a co-op. It will be livestreamed for those who can't make it to London.

Anyone with questions can email cooperationkentishtown@gmail.com, or check out the Facebook page here.

For more on Cooperation Town click here.

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