This guide should hopefully give you a good introductory overview of how to establish a student food co-op. You might find it a bit daunting, but remember: You are not alone! Students for Cooperation exists to support exactly this sort of project. So get in touch and we’ll help you out as much as we can. We can also link you up with other student food co-ops across the UK who you can learn from and share tips and ideas with. So don’t fret – Get excited!
Why Set Up a Food Co-op?
An increasing number of students want to eat affordable, ethically sourced food. But it can often be hard to come by!
By organising collectively, a food co-op allows students to bulk-buy the products you want directly from farmers and wholesalers – cutting a significant chunk off the price. But being involved in a food co-op isn’t just about saving money or surrounding yourself in organic veg, delicious though it may be!
Being part of a co-op allows you to organise in a democratic and empowering way. Whether you get involved in the selling, sampling and selecting produce to buy, running the accounts, making orders, the publicity, you’ll find yourself learning and actively developing new skills and meeting a whole new host of great people.
See also: What is a Co-op?
If you want to be successful then you’ll need to get lots of people interested. If nobody knows about you then you’ll have no customers! If there are only a few of you then running a food co-op could become overly time consuming and stressful. Think continually about publicity, have launch events and socials, invite friends and classmates to get involved, shout about it!
Getting lots of people involved in a co-op doesn’t just mean having plenty of customers or even volunteers. The most successful co-ops actively empower everybody who is involved in the co-op. Recruit them as formal members and give them a direct, democratic say in how the co-op operates. People flourish and will get more involved when they have democratic control and ownership over an enterprise – building a strong base on which your co-op can sustain itself and grow.
As a group write down everything you can think of that you need to do to get the co-op set-up and to keep it running. This can be quite a daunting process, but allows you to ensure everybody is on the same level so you can effectively delegate tasks, spread the workload and ensure you cover all your bases!
What are you going to sell, and who are you going to buy it from?
You can usually split your produce into two categories:
- Perishables – Things that you buy fresh, and can’t for long like fruit and veg, dairy produce and bread.
- Non-Perishables – Things that have a long shelf life and don’t need refrigerating, like flour, rice, nuts, and oil.
The sorts of perishable foods student co-ops tend to sell can usually all be sourced from local farms. Do your research and ask around in friendly shops and cafés selling organic or local produce about where they source their fresh foods from. Is there a local home veg-box delivery service? In your area there should be at least one sizeable organic farm that can source and deliver all of the produce you need. Get in touch with them and begin developing a good working relationship!
Ethically sourced non-perishable foods can be sourced through wholesalers like Suma or Greencity in Scotland. Both are co-operatives and have a history of good working relationships with a number of student co-ops. Have a look at their online list of products to get an idea of the broad range of goods you can sell. The good thing about selling non-perishable food is that you can do larger orders less often, and keep items stored away ready to sell.
But why limit yourself to food? Wholesalers also sell a large range of non-food items that you might consider bulk ordering. For example sustainably sourced toilet roll and environmentally friendly cleaning products.
At the bottom of this article are handy links for finding suitable suppliers.
Stall? Veg-Bag? Shop? Buying Club?
Arguably the simplest type of food co-op. Everybody looks through your supplier’s catalogue, and each member places an order with the co-op. The co-op then orders everything together in one big order, to get delivered to one place – usually somebody’s flat or perhaps a cupboard in the student union. You then arrange times for members to collect their food. You don’t want to have to be chasing people up for money, borrowing money from members, or for people not to collect the food they ordered, so it’s best to have members pay before placing the order.
In this model co-ops sell pre-selected seasonal vegetables in bags or boxes, which have been delivered to you by a local farm. You can then sell them from a regular stall, or as part of a buying club in which members pre-order and collect.
A regular stall is a great way to sell in a visible location and to attract regular, return customers – who may then become members and volunteers! If you can find a permanent space to store produce, equipment and signs then your members can much more easily set-up the stall up without having to lug heavy items too far.
Mobile Stall or Delivery Service
With a trailer/cargo bike or trailer you could consider having a mobile stall or a delivery service. It is also an interesting option if you want to sell on multiple campuses. But if you run a mobile stall, make sure you publicise regular places and times. There’s no use if nobody knows where you are!
The dream of every food coop’er – a space you can call your own! This could be a simple room, a store cupboard with a permanent stall or booth window to sell from, or it could be a full blown shop unit with shiny glass windows!
To run your co-op you may want to purchase some equipment such as weighing scales, storage boxes, large jars, paper bags, signs or even a cargo bike! Most items shouldn’t add up to more than several hundred pounds, however you may be able to find grant funding for this. But you don’t need to buy all the fanciest equipment to get started, save your co-op money by first seeing what you can find second-hand or maybe your members or the students’ union has unwanted items you can use. It’s better to focus on starting selling, rather than waiting around on grant funding!
Finding a permanent space to store your produce and equipment will make the world of difference. The ideal space is dry and secure, centrally located, with washing facilities nearby and out of hours access. But don’t fret about getting the perfect location – a mediocre space is usually better than no space at all! Once you’ve been going for a while you’ll also find it easier to persuade people to give you access to better spaces. Ask your students’ union or friendly departments in your university/college. Keep your eye open for suitable places on campus, then hunt down and sweet talk the person responsible for that space!
Once you do have a space, decorate it as much as you can get away with – make it your own, use posters, signs, paint and more. Use your decoration to show people all about what your co-op is about, how it operates, what your values are, and how they get involved. A good looking space or stall will help to attract and retain customers, members and volunteers.
To decide the price you should sell your produce at take the cost price – the price you pay the suppliers for each item – and then add a small percentage ‘mark-up’ to sufficiently cover all your other costs, for example the cost of equipment, fliers and any unsold food. As an example, The Hearty Squirrel in Edinburgh has a 5% mark-up. You don’t want to overprice your produce, but you do want to make sure you don’t lose money. Making a small surplus and saving up some money will allow you to invest in new equipment in the future. You also want to make sure the co-op has enough money whenever it needs to make large orders!
The best promotion is always by word of mouth, tell all your members and happy customers to recommend the co-op to their friends! However you should also actively publicise your co-op, you want as many people to know about the co-op, what you are, what you sell, when you’re open and how to get involved. Make and distribute lots of stylish leaflets and posters. Find somebody arty to design your co-op a brilliant logo. Get a website and make a Facebook page to regularly post from. Try to get pages on university/college and student union websites. Are there any local organisations or venues who would happily help publicise you?
Permits and Licences
Contact your local Council’s Environmental Health to see if you need to register, they should also be able to offer you useful advice on basic food hygiene and any standards or regulations you may need to fulfil if you plan on selling things like dairy products or meats. Don’t worry! This isn’t too complicated, and is about protecting your co-op, members and customers. If you have any concerns or problems get in touch with Students for Cooperation and we’ll see how we can help!
Becoming a Formal Group
Speak to your students’ union about becoming a registered society, you’ll find it much easier to book rooms, apply for grants, use student union spaces, their website and their society banking services. However some students’ unions may be unsure about you becoming a society as you’re a ‘business’. Developing a good relationship with your students’ union, irrespective of whether or not you’re formally a society, can come in very helpful and make things much easier for you on campus. Student unions up and down the country support student co-ops and have them as registered societies, so contact Students for Cooperation if you’re having any difficulties!
Irrespective of whether you become a student society, you’ll want a written constitution. This outlines what it means to be a member, how to join and how your co-op will organise. Students for Cooperation can provide you with sample constitutions and help you to draft your own if you get stuck!
You should always be reflecting on how you’re doing. What is working, and what isn’t working? Do you have enough members, volunteers and customers? How effectively will you sustain yourself into the coming academic years? How are you doing financially? What are your future plans? Do you want to expand? You should get all of your members, volunteers and customers involved in self-reflection. Ask for their opinions on how the co-op is doing, and get them actively involved in shaping the future direction of the co-op!
All of the following non-perishables wholesalers are co-operatives:
- Essential Trading Co-op, Bristol, Delivers S. England and Wales.
- Greencity Wholefoods, Glasgow, Delivers Central Scotland.
- Highland Wholefoods, Inverness, Delivers Highlands, Islands and NE Scotland.
- Infinity Wholefoods, Brighton, Delivers UK Wide.
- Suma Wholefoods, W. Yorkshire, Delivers UK Wide.
Organic fruit and veg wholesalers:
- Choice Organics, London, Delivers UK Wide.
- Langridge Organic, Devon, Delivers UK Wide.
- Phoenix Organics, Herefordshire, Delivers UK Wide.
Fresh local produce supplier directories and information: