Student food co-op introduces healthy eating to university life

Quality food does not have to be an expensive lifestyle choice; just organise yourselves and enjoy good food at cost price.

Quality food does not have to be an expensive lifestyle choice; just organise yourselves and enjoy good food at cost price.

That is the ethos behind York University’s student co-op, one of a growing number of student-run, not-for-profit co-operatives springing up nationwide.

York Scoop, as it is affectionately known, started in a cupboard in a student house in 2009. Three years on it has a permanent shop on campus at Wentworth College. Last term it doubled its opening hours; increasing from one to two days a week.

Scoops have mushroomed from humble beginnings at Leeds University in 2006 to a nationwide movement of over 20 campus outlets. Last September, People & Planet, a student-led organisation that trains and supports over 2,000 volunteers at British universities, launched Scoop, its student food co-operative project, with food co-op experts Sustain. Since then, eight new scoops have launched at universities in Kent, Oxford Brookes, Strathclyde, Durham, Manchester, Birmingham, East Anglia and Newcastle.

Run by student volunteers, scoops aim to provide sustainable, healthy food at affordable prices. Their not-for-profit model means they can buy goods wholesale and sell them without a mark-up.

Liza Tozer, climate change campaign co-ordinator at People & Planet, explains: “Scoops work by pooling their buying power and ordering food in bulk direct from suppliers.

“A scoop can take the form of a buying group, which works by collecting together everyone’s orders in advance. Other models are more like other food businesses, which order the produce in bulk and then sell it to their customers via stalls, bag or box schemes, mobile stores and shops.”

York Scoop is typical in its focus on local, fair trade, organic and whole foods. Co-op chair and chemistry student Emily Linsey-Bloom says: “It’s not about the money. We try to get everything as ethically as possible.

“It’s really rewarding, creating that feeling of community and providing a means to get affordable, ethical food. It’s such a nice alternative to the supermarket. The not for profit attitude creates more of a community feel."

And as well as a friendly atmosphere, there are bargains to enjoy. Members can buy 100g of cinnamon for 37p, for example, or 100g of organic pasta for 14p. 

Dry goods are bought in bulk and weighed out according to the customer’s needs.

There is local honey and homemade cakes, and sometimes home-grown produce from students’ gardens. The co-op buys £5 veg bags wholesale from Goodness Growing, a seven acre organic farm in Strensall, near York. Everything is sold at cost.

The model has been designed to be flexible. York Scoop’s wholesaler Lembas gives the co-op a small discount which it does not pass on to the customer. This helps pay for spillages and other wastage.

St Andrews University Scoop buys vegetable bags with a £10 retail value in bulk for £5 and sells them for £6. Students can place orders for the bags and other goods by email or through their website. With the profits, St Andrews Scoop runs community food events which raise awareness of sustainable food and promote the co-op.

Liza says: “We offer training to student groups on the different co-operative models and then we allow them to discuss the benefits and limitations of each model. Our role is to support them in creating their own project, and to make them feel part of a larger network that can inspire, motivate and learn from each other.”

York Scoop is run by a team of 30 volunteers. For them, the food outlets on campus were failing to meet students’ basic food needs, or supply what they wanted. The group wanted to offer a genuine alternative to what was available on and off campus.

The co-op gives its 150 members as much say as possible, and encourages them to get involved. And membership is not limited to students; a growing number of members hail from the local community. Like student members, they pay £5 upfront, which is repayable in stock when they leave the co-op. The advance payment helps the scoop pay for the member’s first order.
From the outset, York Scoop has taken advice from People & Planet, Sustain and Leeds University’s Green Action Food Co-op – Britain’s first Scoop – which did initial fundraising to cover the cost of York’s first orders and donated basic equipment.

To pay for weighing scales, jars and paper bags, York Scoop’s founders did their own fundraising, and recycled and reused what they could, making a different kind of scoop from old plastic milk bottles.

They produced leaflets and carried out a questionnaire to gain evidence of support. Once they had established this and agreed a workable model, the university gave them space to open a shop and provided a grant of £1,260 from the York Alumni Fund.

For some members it took a while to adjust to their new shopping routine – wholesale orders take a little more planning than just nipping to the shops – but many scoop members now feel they now have more control over their purchases than ever.

“People like the range we offer, but we’re always ready to listen,” says Emily. “It’s good to talk to people. We get some lovely people using the co-op. We try to be as friendly and open, and as member-led, as possible.

“There’s a personal feel to it. It’s being able to have what you want rather than what supermarkets offer you.”

York Scoop plans to grow its customer base and to practically demonstrate a different way of doing things, by showing more people in the university and beyond what they do.

“We’re growing,” says Emily. “We have a small shop. We’d like somewhere bigger and more central. We’d like to be open five days a week. We’re also considering buying a fridge so we can offer fresh produce.”

The co-op does have some help. Added Emily: “The student union gives us a grant each year, but we have to tell them what it’s for. We usually ask for advertising costs or new equipment.”
Liza Tozer says the future is bright for scoops. “If you can get people changing carbon and energy-intensive elements of their behaviour at university, it can have a massive knock-on impact,” she says. “As much as transition is about preparing a community or institution for a lower-energy, low-carbon future, it’s also about individuals and communities taking responsibility and changing their own behaviour.

“Universities are a great place to introduce co-ops, as students are looking for practical, work-based learning that will give them experience and help them find work post-degree. Scoops look set to continue to grow over the coming years.”

Contact York Scoop at [email protected] 

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