So much more than a grocery store

Poland’s first cooperative shop builds community and leads the way to sustainable groceries

A small food revolution is happening in the center of the Polish capital Warsaw. A stylised leek in Wilcza street no. 29 marks the Kooperatywa Spozywcza Dobrze or, in English, the Dobrze Consumer Cooperative.

Dobrze logoIn this place, a group of close to 150 consumers organise themselves to get supplies of vegetables and other food items directly from producers – local ones as much as possible. The coop was created more than three years ago and since July 2014 it operates at its current ultra-central location. Its main purpose is to have people organise themselves to get sustainably produced, healthy food.

Community and decent prices

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Organic tomatoes from a local family-owned farm, handmade cheese produced in the nearby cheese manufactory. Fair trade coffee from the Zapatistas in Mexico. Fresh kale for 5 zl per bunch. These are just some examples of the products you can buy in the Dobrze shop on week days 11:00-19:30 and Saturdays 10:30 -15:30.

If you are a member of the cooperative then you get the all products at wholesale prices, which is much cheaper than at organic shops across Warsaw. While an increasing number of Poles are interested in healthy, local food, this is mostly available in only a couple of organic shops whose prices can be spicy. Over the past years, however, a few initiatives have been created to supply healthy local food at a lower cost. The newest among them is the Dobrze Consumers Cooperative.

Unlike other schemes existing in Warsaw, the products sold by Dobrze are not only available to its members.

To be sure, members get it at lower prices in exchange for a monthly fee of PLN 25 (around 6 euros) and for volunteering three hours every month. This can be in the form of shifts in the shop, cleaning, transporting and unloading supplies, preparing preserves, coordinating events, and many others, all of it marked in a membership notebook. Those who do not do the work cannot get the discounts the following month.

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Organically grown vegetables and fruits have become popular in Warsaw, but are mostly available in only a few of places whose prices can be spicy.

But it is worth it. Though outsiders can buy in the shop and they do (they account for more 55-60 per cent (depending on the month) of the merchandise sold here, playing an important role in keeping the shop going), it is much cheaper to be a member. Dobrze members hope that in the future their membership will expand to as many as 200.

The other advantage to being a member, of course, is the sense of belonging to a community and being a part of a constructive project. As one of the members of the coop says:

“Neither the state nor the market bring people together around a common purpose.”

But Dobrze does.

The beginning

“We implemented an institutional change, to incite a social change.” Nina Józefina Bąk, Dobrze co-founder

The idea of a cooperative food shop was discussed in the last couple of years by members of the Warsaw Food Cooperative, one of Warsaw’s longest lasting food activism initiatives. But it was Warsaw Food Coop members Nina Bąk together with two friends who were able to make it happen.

The three friends felt that the set up of the Warsaw Food Cooperative was lacking when it comes to community building. In that model, the coop organised weekly shopping and members came to pick up produce once a week. For one, the short time slot for pick up made it so that not many could participate in shopping every week. For another, the community built around the initiative could be strengthened to make sure all members participate properly in the joint efforts.

According to Nina, the founders wanted to create a different cooperative model, more open and democratic, more predictable and accessible. “We implemented an institutional change, to incite a social change,” explains Nina.

Members describe the purpose of Dobrze as threefold:

  1. To provide people with access to affordable healthy and sustainably grown food.
  2. To build a food production and consumption model which would constitute an alternative to the so-called “supermarket lifestyle” that is based on minimising costs and maximising profit. The food provided by this coop is grown with respect for our planet, natural resources and human labour. The coop supports social justice and local small scale producers and it offers fair prices.
  3. To promote a bottom-up model of democracy, promote social cooperation and working together towards a common goal. It is a way to fulfil people’s need for belonging that goes beyond the nuclear family and involves a bigger community.

Setting up shop

Once the vision was clear, the small group of founders had to overcome a number of obstacles to get to where they are now.

In the first year the cooperative focused on two things. One was to provide food to the group of interested consumers – the shopping happened each Friday, once a week, and the produce was initially delivered by a few local farmers. The other was to clarify the concept and take the administrative hurdles to set up a coop shop.

setting-up-shop

At first just a small group of friends of friends and colleagues, the cooperative met to do their shopping and coordinate their plans in spaces lent by other NGOs, then in a vegetarian bar and later in a women’s rights group’s office. The first year was very much a time for learning, sometimes from mistakes and failures, and for people to find their role in the group.

The group decided to become a legal not-for-profit entity to be able to apply for and be eligible to get preferential treatment when renting a locale from the city. While de facto a coop, the group registered as an association because of Poland’s unfriendly and outdated cooperative law which made it hard to register as one. After numerous headaches and struggles with the municipality, the coop did manage to get access to its current locale in the center of Warsaw at a very affordable rent.

Still, some money needed to be raised for opening the shop as planned for summer. It was already decided that the members of the newly founded association would all pay a monthly fee to cover the coop’s day-to-day expenses, including rent (however low).

But there was still money needed for the renovation, supplies and necessary furnishings in the shop. In order to raise the necessary funds the cooperative decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign on the popular web portal polakpotrafi.pl. The campaign, called “Open a shop with us”, was a success – the coop got support from over 200 people and managed to raise over PLN 15 000 (almost 4 thousand euro), more than its target sum of 12 thousand zloty (3 thousand euro).


A promotional video for the crowdfunding campaign. (Click “CC” for subtitles.)

The success of the crowdfunding campaign proved how well the cooperative is able to work with social media and to spread its message in Warsaw’s activist networks. It also showed how much interest there is among Varsovians to get access to cheaper healthy food.

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The cooperative's facebook page announces what's currently on offer.

Achieving goals

Healthy food

The coop is currently getting its produce from many producers, most of them close to Warsaw, only some abroad. This was one of the core purposes of the group, to get sustainably produced healthy food from producers located as close as possible to the consumers and without much intermediation.

Some of Dobrze’s producers are certified organic, but this is not crucial for the members. The lack of certificates can be substituted by a close contact between consumers and producers. This includes visits to the farm during which consumers can learn how the food is produced and see for themselves that chemicals are not used in the process. This models helps build trust between farmers and city customers.

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The price tags include the names of the local producers.

While most of the veggies come from local farms that use traditional methods, some of the dry foods (like lentils and beans, grains and dry fruit) are coming from certified organic wholesalers. A small number of products that do not grow in Poland are also imported, generally from certified organic producers or production coops.

Community

The other big dimension of Dobrze was its ability to create a community of people who work towards a common goal. In this too, Dobrze seems to be succeeding. The work commitments of Dobrze members are not only useful for keeping the coop going but also play a community building role. Members also meet during the various debates and common lunches organised by the coop.

Decisions are made together in a general meeting of members, though up until now there has been a core group of people who have pushed the project forward. Decisions have been made mostly through consensus, but with a plan to enlarge membership to 200, the group will probably move towards more majority based decision making. Yet a sense of building something positive together already seems to keep people close to Dobrze and get others interested in becoming members.

By building a community the Dobrze coop became so much more than a grocery store.
cake

Members of Dobrze take pride in their community’s diversity which includes single households and families, twenty-somethings and people over 70, and so on. The diversity means also that people get to know and interact with other people, who they otherwise would never have met. This can be and for many people is an enriching experience. Membership in the coop makes people more open-minded and tolerant and teaches them about cooperation.

Inspired?