More than 3 years ago I wrote a post called: how to make sustainable food choices. It’s a step by step guide for making the most sustainable choices when it comes to food. However, that post assumes you’re already in a shop of some kind. A supermarket, a farmer’s market, a local shop, etc. Right now, years later, I’m looking at the bigger picture. Where should we buy our food? I dived into the subject and found one very promising solution: food cooperatives.
To look back at that guide of making sustainable food choices: step one is always to choose a plant-based option. The next step is to prevent food waste. Furthermore, eat seasonal, local and organic. Avoid packaging where possible. Right now, I’m vegan and my main priority is to rescue food via the Too Good to Go app. Since the boxes are always a surprise, I buy the rest of my groceries at supermarkets (mostly Albert Heijn, since they have a big organic section).
In theory, I’m doing good. But the past couple of months I started thinking. If everybody made these sustainable choices, we’d still end up with the system we have right now. And that system is destroying the planet. This dilemma is what got me thinking about the whole structure of food systems. Yes, we should apply that guide I wrote to make sustainable food choices. However, the system we are making choices in should change too. So, the question is: what should that system look like?
When diving into the subject of where to buy my food, I always thought: supermarkets suck. They have too much power and don’t make the right choices. I would advocate buying at local farmers and local shop, to distribute both power and money. Now, I changed my mind. Supermarkets are not the problem, they are actually an amazing solution.
Supermarkets are a collective place where you can get all the food you need. No more going to the greengrocer for veggies and fruit, then going to the bakery for bread and a special shop to buy your nuts. That is honestly a waste of time and nobody is going to do that. So, having one collective place to buy all your groceries is great if you’d ask me. We should keep the supermarkets. The real problem is where the power and money lies.
how most supermarkets work
This is how most supermarkets work these days. The supermarket provides food that they think will people will buy. They focus on the products where they think they can make the most profit off, since their main goal is to make as much money as possible. For whom? The shareholders. Albert Heijn for example, has paid 99% of all profit to their shareholders over the past 20 years. No money is going back to food system itself to improve it. Since the goal is to make the most money, all other aspects of the supply chain are neglected. But the shareholders are not the only party in the chain. You have the farmers, the staff of the supermarket, the board, the consumers and the shareholders.
Let’s start with the farmers. They are paid as little as possible for the food they produce. Big supermarkets like Albert Heijn have the power to do so, because farmers can’t really sell their food elsewhere. So, the people who produce the food are not really benefiting. Then there is the staff of the supermarket. They also get paid as little as possible. Even now in 2022, when inflation is extremely high, staff from supermarkets have difficulties to get by. Albert Heijn makes massive profits still, but it does not raise salaries.
Then there’s the board. A small group of people who seem to have much power. That is somewhat true, they have a massive amount of power. However, they have only one goal: ensure the highest possible profits for the shareholders. That’s why they are in the board. There’s not much space to improve the food system itself, it’s only about the profit. Lastly, there are the customers. We have no say in what is offered in the supermarket, we have no say in decision making, we have little power in this system.
So, who wins in the current system? That’s right, the shareholders. They gain a lot of money, while employees struggle to get by while they work hard, the world is destroyed because cheap food will make the most profits and customers pay for it. All the money (and with that power) goes to the shareholders. But that makes no sense. They don’t do anything to add value. Nor will they ever try to improve the food system.
To sum it up: the money flows from the customers to the shareholders. Along the way the staff and farmers get the bare minimum. I think this system should change. I dove into this subject and I think we’d then up with food cooperatives. Let me explain.
A food cooperative is a group of people who own a supermarket (as I said, I stuck with the supermarket system). When you are a customer of the food cooperative, you are also the owner. See it like a membership. You pay a certain amount of money to be part of the food cooperative. This membership does only make you a member/owner, it does not mean you then can get all the groceries you want for free. So, as a member you just shop at the supermarket like you would do at any supermarket. You pay for your groceries and leave.
What really is the big difference here is the profit. Food cooperatives pay their farmers a sustainable and fair price for the produce, so the farmers can built a sustainable and resilient company. They also pay the staff a fair wage. The costs of the building (the physical store, the lights, energy, etc.) are then deducted. What’s left is the profit. This profit is not rewarded to anyone. Also not to the owners (which is you, as a customer). The profit is used to improve the food system where needed. If then there is still money left, it now goes back into the cooperative to make the groceries cheaper for the owners/customers.
So, that’s how the money flows. Not a small group of people gaining all the profits, but the money flowing back to the customers. Everybody benefits from the system. I just mentioned that the farmers and staff get a fair wage. That does not happen just like that. That happens because the power is distributed differently in a food cooperative. The power is distributed evenly among all owners. That makes it, if you’d ask me, truly democratic. When decisions need to be made, they are made together with all members.
Would that mean that all Dutch people, 17 million, need to make decisions together? Well, no, haha. That would be impossible or take a huge amount of time. First of all, when a food cooperative is set up, it does not immediately have millions of members. In the system we live today, food cooperatives are slowly growing. The first group of people who set up the cooperative therefore set up the cooperative. They choose the direction of the cooperative together. In the cooperative which I will join (more about that in a minute) this means they set up a system with only organic, bio-dynamic farmers (the biggest part local farmers), with package-free food and staff that is paid a fair wage.
Also, I would not want one national food cooperative that runs the entire system. Then a cooperative would consist of 17 million members/owners. No, every separate city or village would have a different cooperative. A food cooperative for Amsterdam with multiple stores, a food cooperative for Losser with only one store, etc. This way the amount of members that need to make decisions together does not get too big. Also, this way the food cooperatives can get the food from local farmers and not from all across the country, which reduces food miles but helps democracy. Local customers/owners then have a system over the local food system.
This is why I also think that people in food cooperatives make better choices. Right now, most people buy food in the supermarket and have no idea where it comes from, what it does to the land and what the farmers get paid. When they actually involved in all that, because they are the owners, they will make the right choices. Most people know organic food is better. Once they have the power, they will adjust the food system.
So, the members/owners together make big decisions. Decisions about new farmers that will enter the cooperative, or about the salary raise for employees for example. Those decisions do not need to be made regularly, one meeting every 6 or 12 months could be sufficient since a strong base is already set a the beginning of the food cooperative, with not too many members. However, food cooperatives still have a board, which consists of members. They will arrange less important matters, which the staff itself can’t do, but the decisions are too small to make all together.
I hope you’ve followed all this haha. If you’d ask me this is a truly democratic food system. We all gain, not only stakeholders. We do not need stakeholders. If investments are needed for the food cooperative which can’t be done from the own profits, crowdfunding can be started. These crowd funders provide a loan under a set interest. However, they do not have a say in the decision making of the company, ever.
I’m unsure whether I can support capitalism. I don’t know my opinion about the entire capitalistic system (yet). However, I do know that capitalism does not work when it comes to basic needs. Farmers can make a profit from selling food, yes. But in my opinion, they’re the only party who can. No middle-party in the food supply chain should make money off of food. And I think that should be the same on other basic needs, like energy or health care (but that’s something for another time). Capitalism does not work for food systems.
Now that I know this, what am I doing with it? Food cooperatives exist and I can join them. Then I am part of a just and democratic food system. And within that system I can apply the 5 steps on how to make sustainable food choices. So what will I do?
Of course I will do so in the coming months! I have looked into existing food cooperatives to see which one I will join. We actually have a big food cooperative spread over the entire country: PLUS. However, I looked into their structure and I did not like it. PLUS supermarkets is a cooperative, but it’s part of Sperwer group, which is another cooperative. I don’t like that, because then power is not in the hands of PLUS itself. Also, PLUS is just not the food cooperative I have in mind. The customers are not the owners, but the owners (the single entrepreneurs) of the individual stores own the company. I do not like that. I want customers to be the owners.
PLUS is not a good option. So, none of the existing big supermarkets are food cooperatives the way I have in mind. That made me look into smaller initiatives for my city, Amsterdam. I then found the perfect one: Odin.
Odin is a food cooperative that also exists in a big part of the Netherlands. They are actually a national party. I just said that I did not want that because all those members cannot take decisions together. However, Odin is not such a big player yet. They have about 15.000 members throughout the entire country. That’s a tiny group. Therefore, I think it’s okay that they are a national party, for now.
Almost everything I just described above, what I want in a food cooperative, is what Odin has. There’s one exception. The members of Odin are also the owners, like with any food cooperative. However, at Odin, not all those 15.000 people take part in the decision making for the company. Odin has a member council, which is in charge. This council consist of members/owners who represent everybody. I would rather have everybody part take in this proces, but maybe that’s impossible to realize. The benefit of a council is also that people who are interested in improving the cooperative take place in it. Some people just want to be a member and shop, and not have to think about the bigger picture. Therefore, I think a council is also a good idea.
Summary of Odin
So, to sum it all up. Odin is a food cooperative which does not have shareholders. The members are also the owners of the cooperative. To represent this entire group there is a council, who makes big decisions for the cooperative. Odin sources from local farmers where possible, for products that can’t be found in the Netherlands they look for sustainable and fair farmers outside of the Netherlands and source directly from them (via their own wholesaler). All the products are organic and where possible bio-dynamic. Packaging is minimal.
Profit that is made goes back into the food system, to make it even more sustainable. Additionally, there is a specific fund where customers/members can invest in (so, this is not available for outsiders). They theoretically lend Odin money for future investments and get a return on this too. However, these people who invest have no say in the decision making, very important.
There’s more I’d want. I’d want Odin to be entirely vegan, because it is not. But that’s okay. The overall system of Odin, the system of a food cooperative is amazing. So then it’s time to make changing within the system. In this case, buying only vegan food, so the non-vegan food will be phased out. Let’s hope that is what lies ahead of us!
What I will do
Right now, I buy Too Good to Go boxes at supermarkets like Lidl, to save food. I supplement that with organic groceries at supermarkets. Since it’s always unsure what is inside the Too Good to Go boxes, I go to the supermarket almost every day.
I will switch to the food cooperative Odin! The closest store to me is still 4 kilometers away. I cannot bike there every day, that would be too much work. And so, I will quit the Too Good to Go boxes from supermarkets. The profit from this was also going to these supermarkets, so maybe this is a good thing. I will still occasionally buy Too Good to Go, but only from local stores.
My plan now is to make a precise food plan for a week, go to Odin once a week so I can buy everything I need for that week. And that’s it! A membership at Odin costs 16 euros a month. Also, I have to pay 100 euros once to become a member (if I decide to stop being a member, I’ll get that money back). You can also shop at Odin if you’re not a member, but then you pay a higher price for the groceries. I want to support this food cooperative, so I will become a member. It’s very exciting to make this new step. Once again I am coming closer to practicing my ideals, because I was sick and tired of Albert Heijn and other supermarkets. Let this new journey begin!
This is a monster article and I have even more to say! Maybe more next time. Anyway, do you think food cooperatives are a good way to distribute food?