"The aim is to ensure that people can find everything they need, healthy products produced in accordance with sustainability criteria, without having to engage in acts of heroism."

Interview with Rosa Rovira, a member of Foodcoop BCN and of the current Governing Board.

18/03/2022 - 17:16 h - Environment and sustainability Ajuntament de Barcelona

We talked to Rosa Rovira, a member of Foodcoop BCN and of the current Governing Board, about Barcelona’s new cooperative supermarket. After four years of community work, the cooperative supermarket opened its doors for the first time in February 2022.

What triggered the creation of FoodCoop BCN?

The creation of FoodCoop was triggered by a screening in Barcelona of the film Food Coop Park Slope. A varied group of people with different backgrounds who did not previously know each other were fascinated by the project. A second meeting was held in March 2018 at Cotxeres de Sants for those with the greatest interest who wanted to try to start up a participatory cooperative supermarket in Barcelona. They started by creating an association for the Promotion of Participatory and Cooperative Supermarkets and, once they had decided to go ahead with the opening, they established the cooperative.

How did you learn from other experiences?

We started studying and approaching other cooperative supermarkets. Part of the magic of participatory and cooperative supermarkets is that the project really started with Park Slope and they were certain that they wanted to share their experience so it could be replicated. This experience started to be transferred to other parts of Europe from the La Louve supermarket in Paris, the most direct heir of this model. It is one of the values and principles shared by everyone who follows this model: the aim of making our experience useful to anyone wishing to follow our example. We try not to make the same mistakes and to explain what does actually work. This is why the first thing we did was contact various supermarkets, visit them, collect information, and start driving the project.

The closest relationships we’ve had that have most directly fed into our project due to the similarity of the project and the contact we have had have been with the people at SuperCoop in Manresa. This had only been open for a year, so their experience was very recent. We also had a close relationship with the people at Osa in Madrid, a supermarket that, although much bigger, was based on the same model. They have both been extremely helpful.

There were also more occasional contacts with others, such as La Feixa in Mataró, or SuperCoop in Madrid, as well as chats with people involved in projects not based directly on Park Slope but created before it and more local in nature in Pamplona, the Basque Country and Valencia. We’ve had a good relationship with everyone.

What makes a cooperative supermarket such as FoodCoop different from traditional supermarkets?

The differences between them are fundamental: the similarities are actually much harder to find. The only similarity is that we try to ensure that the supermarket provides a range of products that is able to meet a family’s needs to ensure they can find everything they need in terms of food, personal hygiene and cleaning.

Apart from that, everything is different. It’s an entity, an organisation created by members of the public with the aim of meeting people’s needs. It’s not about profit: it’s a non-profit organisation. It’s all about people. And, at the same time as people – because ultimately it’s all the same – environmental sustainability is also at the heart of the project.

One of the main aims is to ensure that families can find healthy products produced in accordance with sustainability criteria so that they can make responsible and transformative decisions about their consumption taking these principles into account without having to jump through hoops or engage in acts of heroism.

In addition, we want all of us to become some kind of vortex, a place for the transformation of the neighbourhood, somewhere where an energy based on awareness and transformation of consumption is generated. We want things to happen, to be more than just a supermarket where people come to shop and that’s it: we want it to be a venue for workshops, conferences and other events. We also want to establish a different type of relationship with producers and the countryside, one that is closer and more knowledge-based, because people in the city are sometimes very disconnected, in order to help us understand that our consumption decisions are very important in terms of moving towards a human model.

Why do you think FoodCoop has appeared now and in this way?

These are hard times for people, both socially and politically and – I might even venture to suggest – from a civilisation point of view. We’re suffering on many different fronts. We’re facing situations that are hard to deal with, and the system we’ve been living in has somehow kept us apart and continues to do so. Everyone is so self-involved. Foodcoop BCN is also about creating a meeting place where people can get back this community-based energy, the feeling that things can be built by members of the public at community level, with the excitement of working on something yourself and pouring your heart into a project. We want somewhere that feeds us, that nourishes us with a different type of energy from that around us, and for this energy to be the driver of change and to promote the well-being of the people involved in the project.

There is a sense of belonging and well-being: this is the good energy that’s going round.

How does the model work? What is its operating structure?

The operating structure revolves around the members of the cooperative themselves, who have three key roles in the project: they are consumers and owners (therefore making decisions) and are actively involved in its operation. Decisions are made democratically, and important decisions must be reached together by all members.

This participation role, which is very important to us, involves a commitment to ensuring that all members who are able to do so give three hours of their time to the project in order to make it work. This reduces costs, which then makes two key principles possible: offering consumers a fair price while also paying producers a fair price, and creating a sense of belonging. This involvement makes us a community, it turns us into a tolerant group with values. It makes us more open. It also brings us closer to the project, making everyone’s opinions heard and more likely to be acted on.

We also have various groups of voluntary workers who carry out tasks not relating to the operation of the supermarket itself, such as those relating to communication, premises, finance, purchasing, ICT, operations, community and care… as well as more specific or temporary work groups.

In addition, we currently have three employees working on a variety of matters. They bridge the gap between the other groups and keep things running.

And how do all these parts work together?

We have a governance group that works on the consolidation of a sociocracy-based model, something that is different from the usual hierarchical model and involves various tools and processes that allow for an effective sharing of power. We talk about transparency, about links between groups of people to ensure that everyone is represented in a coordinating group, which is where all strategic decisions are made and everyone is listened to. It is a process under construction, although we have already laid down some of the foundations and we already have a structure that is very much based on this.

Changing the hierarchy to a flat model allows people to get truly involved, resulting in energy, collective intelligence and creativity. It enables different solutions to emerge from different approaches.

How many members does the cooperative currently have?

We had 450 people when we first opened, but there are probably around 550 of us by now. The opening has aroused a lot of interest in the project and has helped us go even further. We are at a stage of growth, and we want this to continue until we have enough room to welcome new families to the supermarket. I think we could easily grow to up to 1,000 or 1,200 members.

The aim is to have one member per household, with two membership cards. New members are charged a one-off fee of €90, payable in instalments if need be. However, thanks to a grant that is available, there is also a reduced fee of €15 for people in a situation of vulnerability.

What is the range of products currently available at FoodCoop BCN?

We try to make sure the supermarket stocks a bit of everything so that people can come in with their shopping basket and get everything they need. There is a section with fruit and veg and products that can be bought in bulk such as grains, pasta, rice, spices, nuts or bread. Then there’s the cleaning and personal hygiene section, and refrigerated products: dairy products, cold cuts and fresh meat. We’re still looking for a supplier that’s right for us, that meets all the criteria. We have drinks, alcohol, soft drinks, plant-based milk alternatives and fruit juice, as well as other packaged products.

In fact, in principle the only thing we don’t have is fresh fish, because it’s really hard to handle.

As you mentioned earlier, cooperation is key to the social and solidarity economy. How do you make it work?

In October 2021 we created the Spanish Network of Cooperative Supermarkets to take advantage of the experience after opening, work together to enjoy economies of scale and carry out communication campaigns.

We want to have places for dialogue where we can share the challenges we face; we want to ensure that, when something important happens and we need to be heard, we have a collective voice rather than an individual one. For example, the controversy surrounding macrofarms has triggered the launch of the network’s first campaign, “The farming you want“, a joint initiative to find a stronger voice together.

And what is your relationship with the city and the rest of the Social and Solidarity Economy ecosystem?

As regards cooperativism, our relationship is as close as we can make it: it’s at its heart. It is the first requirement when looking for suppliers – not so much for food as for all those things we need in order to operate the supermarket, ranging from getting our electricity from Som Energia to any advice we may need, IT matters or anything else: we always try to work with cooperatives.

And then there is also the local area, our relationship with other very important social struggles that are taking place in our neighbourhood. There are many people with very high awareness at the supermarket, but we don’t yet have a clear position as a cooperative. This is something that is very close to our hearts, and sometimes we provide explanations or hold internal communication events to raise awareness but, in order to have a position, we need to incorporate the various sensitivities of everyone in the group. In fact, the communication group is already planning a proposal to collect information about people’s position in an informed manner in order to extend our reach. What we do understand very clearly, however, is everything relating to our field of action, what we have committed to, which is the fight for sustainability and food sovereignty.