1970s ACTIVISM & AUTONOMY: stories from East London Big Flame

Food co-op

Food co-op

Why we did it

The East London Big Flame group saw rising prices as a way that people were robbed of wage rises they had fought for in the workplace, and the food co-op was a way of getting food more cheaply. Also, we were looking for ways of sharing and building solidarity through collectivising aspects of daily life.

Shopping cartoon

What we did

At first we were thinking more about a campaign against rising prices. Angered by the way the cost of food was soaring, on Saturday 17th November 1973 we staged a picket in the Roman Road, our nearest high street, with a blackboard pointing out what different shops were charging for the same goods. The following Saturday we handed out a leaflet encouraging people to get together to combat rising prices (see small leaflet We pay while they profit); it invited people to a meeting in a local hall on a Sunday afternoon two weeks later. No-one turned up to the meeting, so we had to think again.

We did some research and produced a big leaflet that showed with bullet points how prices were rising and how food suppliers were profiting (see big leaflet We pay while they profit). Then, inspired by the Red Spot Market (a people’s food co-op in west London), we decided to focus on one estate, the Lincoln Estate (see photo showing Swaton Road houses with Lincoln Estate high-rise behind), and try to set up a food co-op.

Whereas our previous leafleting had been done as a mixed group, this was an initiative by women in the ELBF group. We started the project with five women from different backgrounds whom we already knew on the estate, some through the Shrewsbury Building Workers campaign. The estate housed 2,000 families, mostly in two tower blocks. We leafleted the estate several times (see leaflet Soaring Food Prices) with little response, so we went ahead with our friends and their friends. We did carry on posting the odd slip around the estate (see Have you read about it…?) to pick up more members.

The way it worked was we would buy food and household goods in bulk at a Cash & Carry and at other wholesale suppliers, and then divide it all up among our families at cost price. For the first three months we bought extra stuff and sold it on the green next to the estate;  that way more people joined and there were about fifteen families involved.

The co-op began in March 1974. After the summer we stopped selling on the green because of police harassment.  We did the co-op every fortnight: a Wednesday meeting at different people’s flats in turn, to put in the orders and the money; Thursday/Friday to buy the food and store it in someone’s home; Friday evening a small group did the packing; Saturday morning everyone picked up their orders. We regularly bought general groceries, meat, cheese, tins, eggs, potatoes and apples.

The women used the meetings as a chance to talk about anything from abortion, children and demos to jobs, lifts and housework. Also, the involvement in doing this project together made us all feel stronger and less isolated as women, and changed relationships in our homes. The whole experience is described in the words of all the women involved in the 16-page pamphlet People’s Food Co-op, Lincoln Estate, Bow. We sold this locally and within the women’s movement to spread the word.

Sometimes we went on outings together: to cinema and to an alternative local theatre, the Half Moon in Stepney; to Shrewsbury Building Workers campaign socials; and some women came on the International Women’s Day march and film show we organised in March 1975. Some got involved with the playgroup we’d been running for over a year. Some people in ELBF had  set up a leaderless therapy group (see Red Therapy) and we set up another, smaller one with two women in the food co-op and another local woman. This women’s self-help therapy group continued several years after the food co-op had ended. (See article This is what some women did).
Price rise again - who is to blame? food coop leaflet

Looking back…

The Co-op lasted until late 1975. While it lasted, we all not only got cheap food but turned shopping from an individualistic, privatised, competitive process into a shared and co-operative one. After we’d been doing it for nine months, we wrote another, more self-critical, 16-page document The People’s Co-op for discussion within Big Flame, reflecting on what the co-op did and didn’t achieve.

Recently Joanne Hollows of Nottingham Trent University wrote an article 'We Won’t Pay': Price rises and socialist-feminist consumer activism in the 1970s, which saw this socialisation of shopping in our food co-op as a challenge to the consumerist ethic of our culture.