A conversation with Joe Herbert of Newcastle Food Co-op
Joe Herbert is a member of Newcastle Food Co-op and is a post-graduate researcher in Human Geography at Newcastle University.
Hannah Marsden: Can you give us some background about when the Newcastle Food Co-op started and why it started?
Joe Herbert: I first became involved when I came to Newcastle University in 2013, but I think from looking at the old website and constitution, it had started the year before in 2012. It feels a bit strange speaking about this because the co-op does not have a leader or a spokesperson and so it’s weird that one person would speak on behalf of it. There are people who have been a lot more crucial to it than I have, for sure. When I came, there was a good group of like-minded, environmentally and politically engaged students, mostly in their second and third year, who were involved in running the Food Co-op and other groups like People and Planet and the Fossil Free Campaign.
Hannah: What are those?
Joe: People and the Planet is a national student activist network which focusses on social and environmental justice and Fossil Free is a campaign to stop universities investing in the fossil fuel industry. In 2013, when I was an under-graduate, there was a People and Planet Society and it was made up of a lot of people who did the Food Co-op. People and Planet stopped after that year when a lot of that group left university, as is the case with a lot of student projects, but we’ve just started the People and Planet Society up again. The Fossil Free campaign has carried on as an independent campaign, so now People and Planet is set up as the new home for that.
Hannah: It seems important that there is a relationship between the political campaigning side of stuff and being able to channel that into issues that relate directly to people’s everyday lives, like where our food comes from.
Joe: Yes, so it has often been the case that the people involved in Newcastle Food Co-op were also involved in other environmental and political campaigns going on around campus. There could be another scenario where a food group like this could be very apolitical, with very little thinking about the values behind it, but Newcastle Food Co-op has always been motivated by environmental and political concerns and that is because of the values and politics of its members . There has always been the aim of spreading those co-operative values, so rather than keeping our values internal we are showing other people that there are different ways of doing things, that this is a more ethical way of doing things.
Hannah: Can you explain a bit more about the values of the co-operative and how they work in practice?
Joe: The Food Co-op is completely non-hierarchical so everyone who is a member has an equal say in decision-making processes and there are no leaders or people in high positions. The co-op is also ‘not-for-profit’, which means that we exist not to make money for the members but to further our core values. Any money we make goes back into the co-op, rather than being paid out to the members. You buy in as a member for a nominal amount, say £3-£5, and once you do that you have the same amount of standing as anyone else, even those who have been in it for a long time. Members not only access the possibility to order food but it is expected that you contribute to the running of the organisation as well. We do sell stuff to non-members, but if you become a member you are expected to contribute by volunteering on the stalls, administering the orders, and sorting out the store cupboard. There is no punishment for not doing it of course, but there is an expectation that you are becoming a member of a group that adheres to a certain set of values, which comes with responsibilities as well as benefits.
Hannah: So are you open for new membership?
Joe: Yes, we just met to discuss our plans for the year and we really want to get more members involved but we want people to understand that it is about being part of a collective or cooperative, so that they contribute.
Hannah: Yes, so people understand that it’s not just a service?
Joe: Yes, and that’s why we are not just focussing on selling the food, and we don’t make any money through that. It’s more important to us to grow the group and build the community around it. We have regular meetings about once a month where we get together and everyone brings food to share and then we do any business that needs doing.
Hannah:I guess by having a stall outside the Students’ Union you are becoming visible and helping those people who are interested to find you. Do you manage to connect with other similar projects?
Joe: Certainly within the university yes, but the initiatives are not all that separate. It tends to be that the people involved in the Food Co-op are involved in Fossil Free and other environmentally oriented groups. It doesn’t feel like each initiative has its own, distinct identity. The boundaries become blurred and events on campus are often co-hosted or co-run. The Food Co-op might hold a stall at a Fossil Free event, and we might promote the Fossil Free campaign on our stall. The Food Co-op has the value of working with other initiatives that share our values, so we are always looking outward to other projects, but this doesn’t happen off campus much because of capacity; we are a small scale, ad-hoc operation. It’s important to us that we work with other co-operatives too, like we order our food from Suma, a successful large co-operative that shares the same values.
Hannah: By creating the map we are trying to show that these alternative initiatives are already happening, no matter how small or ad-hoc they may be. What do you see as the benefit of the map, now or in the future?
Joe: Personally speaking, I think it is such a valuable resource to have. There are lots of people who are doing cool things who all share these values and they work hard on their individual projects, but they don’t often step back and get a view of the broader landscape. The knowledge across the map is an asset. There will be very well-established initiatives, and there will be people who have been working on this for 30-40 years or more, who have a valuable knowledge of the landscape. People who have not lived here as long, like students, are never going to have as good a knowledge and so it can be hard to access these things and get into the scene. Having a resource like the map where you can see all the things that are going on is really cool.
Hannah: So here’s an idea: imagine if in Freshers Week, instead of going on a pub crawl, you can go on a solidarity economy crawl and meet lots of people from all these initiatives and find out how to get involved?
Joe: I would have loved that. So yes, students tend to concentrate on things within the university because that is what they can see and more easily get involved in, but I want to try and get involved in things outside in the wider community. I think if the map can help people find ways into these initiatives and get involved, then that’s a good thing.
Hannah: One of things we want to do is build connections across different points on the map. What would be the value in communicating with other initiatives?
Joe: The most helpful thing for the Food Co-op is being able to see what other co-operatives there are and what they are doing. If we could get people to come and speak to the students who are part of the Food Co-op about how they run their cooperative, it’s history and development, and offering insight about what a co-operative means in different circumstances and on a bigger scale, that would be really valuable.
Hannah: I wanted to ask you about the role of young people in all this. So, as you’ve said there will always be people who have been on the block longer and who have more knowledge of the wider landscape but at the moment, we are also seeing a mobilisation of young people through things like the School Strike for Climate. It seems the views of young people are becoming increasingly part of the narrative. What specifically do you think young people are bringing?
Joe: Well there seems to be more and more recognition of the agency of young people to be involved in change. Historically speaking, this has not been the case. Now there seems to be more acknowledgement of the voices and views of younger people. The input of young people in striving for change has become more respected, which is so important. A lot of the people I speak to are students and most of them have not lived in this area for very long. Students are a transitory group, so often they don’t have a strong connection to the local context. Often the identity that comes with being involved in environmental or social justice movements is about not being tied to any specific locality and about valuing everywhere equally. So, something that has happened on the other side of the world should be just as important to you as something that is happening on your doorstep. But even so, it’s often the case that the people that are engaged in these bigger movements are also the people that are very active in local projects as well. It can be difficult, for younger people and students who are not permanently living here. With many of these initiatives there is quite a lot of trust involved between the people, and you have to have a long-term commitment to reach a certain level of trust. That can be a barrier to people who can only contribute for certain amount of time, making it difficult to have any meaningful involvement. If the map can make those opportunities a bit clearer, that would help.
Hannah: I imagine since you’ve been involved there have been peaks and troughs in activity so what is it that that keeps you going?
Joe: In the last year there has been a lot of down times. When you have only a small group of people working on it, it can be hard to keep it going. It just depends on the group that are involved in it, there will always be peaks and troughs. Personally, I am always keen to try and stay involved in it and contribute in some way. When it has been struggling, I have always been keen to keep it going, so I volunteer to run the stall when I can. I guess it’s because I have a strong belief in the principle of it. These kinds of things are not two-a-penny in Newcastle, there is not a whole queue of food co-ops waiting to start up, so you must work hard to keep the few things that there are going. I am always keen to support anything like this that operates within the university because there is a perception that the solidarity experience of university has been eroded with the neoliberalisation of Higher Education, and I feel that people now come to university thinking of themselves as a consumer because that is what they have been sold by the system. So the fact that there are students who want to engage in more politically minded, solidarity initiatives, who want to find people who think in similar ways, who want to build collectives, rather than just coming and getting your degree and then going, is really cool. I think that is a really important part of the university experience, so I want to keep that going.
People and Planet