Human Stories

Participatory Food Cooperatives

Once a month, I change hats. Normally, I'm a project manager working behind a computer. But today, for a few hours, I'm a receiving clerk - accepting and checking deliveries at my local food cooperative in Brussels.

I arrived here around 9 am. After a short briefing on the morning tasks, the 7 of us in charge of the morning shift went to work. I’m glad I’ve been paired with Arthur, as the task for today is not an easy job. Together, we will have to take care of the huge beer delivery of the day: two full wooden pallets of around 50 crates. For almost 3 hours we check the delivery, shelve the beer, and carry the rest into storage.

Arthur and I are two of the 1600 co-operators of the biggest participatory food cooperative in Belgium, BEES Coop. Launched in 2017 in Schaerbeek, it is a unique supermarket where you must participate to earn the right to shop. About 80 per cent of the workload is assumed by the cooperative members, including daily management, inventory shelving, checkout, cleaning, and receipt of deliveries. Each co-operator works a monthly shift of 2,75 hours, and eight employees ensure the continuity of activities.

We are all partly owners of our supermarket: we each invested at least a 25 euro share when joining the project. The majority of the shopping clients are cooperative members, who have the right to vote at the General Assembly Meetings through participatory governance. This feeling of ownership influences the way I shop: in a regular supermarket, I’d look for the longest possible Best-Before-End expiry date, but in my own co-op, I naturally want to reduce waste (both material and financial) and favour products that might expire soon.

Our cooperative is not for profit: we are not looking for returns. The goal is to offer healthy and quality food - preferably locally sourced. We can offer our products at attractive prices compared to traditional organic supermarkets because our economic model is based on three pillars: a low and transparent gross margin, a minimal recourse to intermediaries, and savings on labour costs (through the active participation of all).

More than just a supermarket

BEES Coop is a one-stop shop: from food to cleaning products and toiletries, it offers 3300 products. I can even find my favourite magazine and air tube replacements for my bike! The shop interior is rather minimalistic, with wooden shelves and clay walls, and uses as many natural materials as possible. The buyer's experience is relaxed, and we feel at home. There’s no stress induced by aggressive marketing campaigns you’ll typically find at traditional supermarkets. 

Walking around, you will find basic potatoes at 86 cents per kilogram and organic eggs at 34 cents a piece, local organic mushrooms at 12,50 euros per kilogram, a fine cheese selection (sliced by co-operators themselves to reduce the price) starting at 13 euros per kilogram, and a beer selection to make your head spin with nearly 150 varieties. You will not find big brand names, but thoroughly selected alternatives chosen by our dedicated co-operators’ committee through agreed sustainability and health criteria. Thanks to this selection process, I trust the products I find here, and I spend less time browsing for items that match my values.

But BEES Coop is more than just a supermarket - a community has been created through the project. My family shops at BEES once a week to buy our groceries. Our boys run through the 350m² shop and get comfortable in the little wooden house that was created for them at the back, where they read and play with other kids. I usually meet friends and neighbours and we stop for a chat about what’s going on locally. 

The cooperative movement, in brief

This participatory cooperative might seem like an unusual model, but it is, in fact, nearly 200 years old. The first consumer cooperatives were created in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century as “associations for the purpose of joint trading.” They originated among the less fortunate and were conducted always in an unselfish spirit.1

Nowadays, cooperatives come in all shapes and sizes with a basic principle to bring people together to realise their common socio-economic needs and aspirations.2 Major consumer cooperatives can be found in several European countries. For some, the principles have been reduced to people buying products at cheaper prices.3

But the participatory model used at our BEES Coop was created by following the example of the Park Slope Food Coop, which has prospered for 45 years in the Brooklyn district of New York.4 We were not the only ones to get inspired: you can find several examples of similar projects throughout Europe.5

Challenges of accessibility

Critics might describe the co-op as an upper-middle-class-quinoa-eaters club in the heart of a working-class district. What saddens me is that they might be right. Through the constructive years of the project, our wish for BEES to be a meeting ground for all social classes shifted down on the priority list. Of course, not every family has 2,75 hours per month to devote to such a project. The selection of products is still considered restrictive for bigger local families that cannot afford a 3-euro can of jelly.

However, we are trying to change that through several actions: by proposing a number of basic products at a lower price and by opening our spacious kitchen and meeting space to local NGOs and clubs, allowing them to develop activities with the local neighbourhood. 

On the bright side, membership continues to grow at a good pace, and we are optimistic and motivated to have an even better future. There is still a lot of work to be done, but it feels good to have started a movement and allowed a number of people to introduce a real change in their habits. Big changes start small. 

Banner illustration by Cait Mack.

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  1. Fay, Charles R, 192, “Cooperation at Home and Abroad” (London: P.S. King and Son, LTD, 1925) p5
  2. International Cooperative Alliance (n.d).
  1. Stein, Emanuel. “The Consumers' Cooperative Movement.” The Journal of Educational Sociology, vol. 6, no. 7, 1933, pp. 427–436. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2961441. Accessed 9 June 2021.
  2. Food Coop Le Film (2016).
  3. Karmouni, H. E., & Prévot-Carpentier, M. (2016). L’idéal coopératif dans une organisation contemporaine. RECMA, N° 340(2), 78‑92.
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