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Designing Economic Cultures is a research project that sets out to investigate the relationship between socio-economic precarity and the production of socially and politically engaged design projects.

The fundamental question the project poses is:
how can designers, who through their work want to question and challenge the prevalent economic system, gain a satisfying degree of social and economic security without having to submit themselves to the commercial pressures of the market?  Read more ›

Construction site for non-affirmative practice

Constructive Dismantling

My Castle Is Your Castle

Warsaw Food Co-op

We shall beat capitalism with a carrot.

Co-op slogan

WarsawFoodCoop_PublicAir_2011

Background
Warszawska Kooperatiywa Spozywcza is a food co-operative that was set up in Warsaw in January 2010 as an initiative to contribute to building an equitable, democratic and ecologic economy. The activities of the co-operative revolve around procuring healthy food for fair prices by building a network between producers and consumers that – rather than focusing on profit – focuses on the satisfaction of needs on both sides. Hence, the co-operative aims to build relationships with producers based on mutual respect, dialogue and fair trade.

Areas of engagement
- supply of affordable, healthy food
- mutual support among members
- building relationships between consumers and producers that are based on noncapitalist values
Funding
- support from other collectives who allow for the free use of their space for the re-distribution of the food bought in bulk

Development
2010: setting up of first self-organised food co-op in Warsaw

Location
Warsaw, PL, 1,716,855 inhabitants

WarsawFoodCoop_2011

CONVERSATION
This conversation, between the co-founder of the co-op – Tomek Sikora, Bianca Elzenbaumer and Fabio Franz, was held in the kitchen of A-I-R Laboratory, Warsaw in July 2011.

Can you introduce us to Warszawska Kooperatiywa Spozywcza and its activities?

The Warsaw Food Co-op has now been running for a year and a half. It was founded by people involved in radical left movements who have no party-affiliations. It was initiated by ten people and then grew rather quickly: we now have two self-organised co-ops in the centre of Warsaw, one in Mokotow, Lodz, Gdansk and Lublin. The way the co-op provides food is straight forward: you go to the webpage that we programmed, you click on the things you want to order, for example carrots and beetroots, and then, every second Friday, we go to the market and the farmers to get the food. Once we have bought the food, it is re-distributed from a place in Warsaw – currently this is the squat in Wilcza Street. So once you have ordered, you come to the place of distribution, you pay for your food and you stay for the meeting where we discuss all the tasks necessary to perform the next time. It all works because we do it ourselves. There are always people needed to go to the market, people needed to divide the produce into the orders, people who deal with the payments and people who clean up afterwards.

How many people are you and how can one join the co-op?

We are about thirty to forty people at every meeting, but actually we are a group of 140 people. This means that the people at the meeting change all the time. At one point, we had to stop letting people join because we were too many and couldn’t deal with it. So now, we have a new system: whoever wants to join will be assigned a “guardian” – someone who will help the person to get into the routine of the co-op. This works better. To join, it is good to know someone in the co-op already, this person then announces at the meeting that there is a person who would like to join and then we find a person as a guardian. This is also important because at times people join who treat the co-op like a regular shop where they only want to order and take. This does not work because the co-op is run democratically and we do everything with our own hands. We discuss all current activities, problems and ideas and we don’t vote to make decisions, we just try to achieve consensus – which at times is quite difficult.

Why did you decide to set up the food co-op?

First of all, we simply don’t agree with the reality created by capitalism in general. So the founding members were all involved in different activities that are against capitalism, trying to build some kind of alternative. For me personally, the question was always: if not capitalism, then what? So being part of the co-op movement is an attempt towards an answer for me. To me, co-ops seem the best alternative I came across so far: capitalism individualises us, but we wanted to do something as a group to make a community, to make something together. We also wanted (and needed) access to cheap food. When we established the co-op, we didn’t even talk about cheap food, we were focused on what we can do with food, how we can activate society, how we can contribute to change. So we came up with the anarchist food co-op idea that brings together people informally, without needing to be registered or anything.

Can you tell us more about the co-op movement?

There are three steps that I see as part of the co-operative movement, which as a whole is driven by the desire to boycott capitalism. First of all, the co-operative movement arranges retail stores and retail trades to replace capitalism. That is “the first punch”, as they call it. The second is to arrange wholesale trade and then third one is to arrange production. The idea is that through these three steps, capitalism will gradually be replaced and we will re-organise life in a different way, based on democratic values and collective property. Our co-op, of course, is collective property. Many people say – especially here in Poland – that if something belongs to everyone, it belongs to no-one. We say, of course, that this is stupid: it belongs to all of us, it is ours. We now have two co-ops in Warsaw and we will try to have a co-op in every district in Warsaw and then every quarter, and then every street.

So how is the Warsaw Food Co-op different from a buying club?

In buying clubs, people also gather to buy food but for them, the main focus is on accessing cheap food. We also do this, but we are different because we also try to create a community of people that can rely on each other. We are not so alone anymore – there is always someone you can connect to. Also, every time you buy something in our co-op, 10% of the money that you pay goes to the common fund which allows us to support members when they need help with paying the dentist, new glasses or when they have other problems in life. We generally try to stick together, we pickle cucumbers for the winter, we do picnics, discussions, and so on. And we have this goal of changing reality. For instance, we are currently buying from a market called Bronisze, the biggest wholesale market in Poland. However, we want to try to get away from it because we are trying to build a system that connects the co-op directly with the farmers. For now, we have got two direct connections with farmers. This is a new thing for us and it is really great because the farmers harvest the fresh produce in the morning. Connecting directly with the farmers is a big change for us and we want to organise more of it. At one point, we also had our own allotment here in Warsaw, with cucumbers and potatoes, but we don’t have it anymore. At the beginning, many people said they wanted to grow vegetables, but finally only three people did the work. This made these three quite angry and we decided to stop.

Do you have any main principles that guide you in choosing the produce?

First of all, we are all vegetarians, so we sell diary and vegetables, but no meat at all. We also want the produce to be ecological, so, for example, the two farmers we are in contact with now don’t use any chemicals. They don’t have an organic certificate, however, because the certificate is expensive and this would be reflected in the price of the food, but, for example, they use a garlic mixture on the vegetables to protect them from pests. We found that is very difficult to find people who farm in ecological ways. It took us a long time to find these two farmers.

How do you organise the transport of the produce?

We use our own cars. It might be that we collectively buy a car in the future, but not now. We always rotate who goes to the market, so you can always learn something new: what fruits and vegetable are of good quality? How are they grown? How to get them cheaply? How much does the gasoline add up to? Considering all these things when we buy produce for the members of the co-op is a very good feeling, although using our own cars does mean that there is a limit to how much produce we can get from the market. We also have a priority that when the car is full, we don’t buy anything exotic, like bananas and oranges. First and foremost, we buy local produce. Usually, the car is full with the orders of about 14 people, but we have managed to do the shopping for up to 33 people, but then it really is a lot.

Did you ever think of erasing those products that are not local?

Yes, but for now we cannot agree upon it. Some people want these products: people want their bananas, eggs and dairy. Personally, I don’t want them, but others do. At times, we get in big fights over this, but, as this is a democratic organisation, there are many people and many views.

How does the co-op work in terms of integrating elderly people or people who are not exactly your type?

Getting people from older generations involved is our great challenge. We think this is related to Poland’s history with the socialist regime. Another obstacle is that we order things online and not everyone has access to internet. We do offer to take people’s orders and transfer them online, but we need to find a way where ordering online does not become a barrier.

What are your plans, hopes, desires for the future?

We would really want to open a shop and we are playing with this idea of building a housing co-op made of containers. Land is expensive and building as well, but with the containers, we could maybe be able create access to cheap housing.

Warszawska Kooperatywa Spozywcza

We thank Tomek Sikora for the conversation and Polly Hunter for proof-reading the edited text.