The Big Carrot

A big part of my co-op tour is to learn from co-operatives that are building on commercial success to explore ways they can strengthen their local food systems and the co-operative economy, beyond simply selling good food. Toronto provided a multitude of inspiring ideas, from a food security programme bringing together a co-op and community farm, another co-op’s grant fund for scaling up organic production, and a network of co-operatives working together for food sovereignty.

The Big Carrot, a long-established worker owned grocery (in a suburb very reminiscent of Chorlton) already supported a wide variety of food initiatives, but has recently launched a new grant fund specifically designed to boost commercial organic production in their region. Called ‘Nature’s Finest’, it funds activities that either expand production or extend the growing season, which is as short (if not shorter) than ours in the NW.Among many other things it’s already generated a new drying facility for locally grown beans, extended glasshouses for winter salads and provided certification for a wild mushroom company and as a result, the co-op’s supply chain continues to shorten - I enjoyed some great local salad that wouldn’t have been on the shelves without it. 

West End Food Co-op on the other hand is a multi-stakeholder co-operative that has as its members not only workers and customers but also suppliers and community partners – aiming to ensure that everyone involved, from field to table, has a voice. It runs a grocery and farmers market and of particular interest to me, the Co-op Credit programme. This is a volunteer scheme that allows community members who struggle to access good food to simultaneously earn credit to buy fresh groceries at the co-op and get training that boosts their skills and can help them into employment.  Closing the loop, one of the volunteering placements is a community farm, where the food they grow is either donated to local food banks or sold back to the co-op.  

Built into Unicorn’s principles is our commitment to support like-minded initiatives, many food-based, with an amount equivalent to 5% of our wage bill. As our numbers grow, so does our fund, and there is definitely room for a more strategic approach to the support we offer. After all this inspiration, I’m looking forward to exploring how.

Both co-ops are member of the Local Organic Food Co-ops network, which brings together all kinds of food and farming co-ops in Ontario working towards a co-operative and sustainable food system. Amongst other things, they’re doing some exciting work building regional food hubs, using co-operative models to grow, distribute and sell food in a way that benefits everyone in the chain. The network also facilitates knowledge exchange and support between members. A badly struggling consumer co-op in Toronto was recently supported back into profitability by help from a multitude of fellow network members, many of whom would be viewed as competition in the mainstream business world. The essence of co-operation between co-ops!

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