Foundations and Connections in Lockdown

Ebony Redhead of Social Business Wales shares the impact of social enterprises and co-operatives on her life during lockdown in north Wales.

See this page in: Cymraeg

Like everyone else, I have been on lockdown for over eight weeks. During this time, one thing I have come to realise above anything else is how grateful and ultimately relieved I am that I had built such strong connections to local food and services in my community.  I am not special – I did not have to work hard at building this incredible supply, lifeline and social structure around my family.  It was easy because they were available thanks to the hard work and dedication of those in my community – kick started and run by incredible community enterprises, co-operatives and foundational economy businesses.

So much of what is keeping us going here in our corner of Snowdonia has been thanks to these local businesses.

I have been profoundly struck by the impact these connections and networks have had on my family, hence the rant right here.

I’m a natural worrier and my experiences of supermarket shopping are getting more and more dystopian.  However, when I drive over to Tyddyn Teg, a local growers’ co-operative, I feel so different about food buying during a pandemic.  We have been on their veg scheme since the start.  The measures this small growing co-op have put in place to make all members and walk-in customers feel safe, has been amazing.  They have worked so hard to provide the best organic vegetables, grown on their farm, as well as produce from other growers (co-operation right there) and fruit and other offerings from further afield.  Their communication has been constant and reassuring, and their recipes much better than Jamie Oliver’s for those with normal things in the back of the cupboard, (combined with their beautiful produce of course).

If I wasn’t on this scheme, I know that another great co-operative is just down the road – Moelyci’s farm shop remains open (a strict ‘one in, one out’ policy in operation).  This pioneer of community-owned farming is providing locally produced, locally sourced food to our community throughout this most disturbing of times.

I have been able to source locally caught seafood via The Menai Seafood Company.  I had already joined the mailing list for ordering fresh local seafood every week – collected from their Bethesda kitchen.  I found out from chatting with co-founder, Mark, that they were involved in a Foundational Economy pilot with Partneriaeth Ogwen, a very dynamic community enterprise operating throughout the Ogwen valley.  The aim?  To bring local people closer to their food.  Seemed to me like a good idea then, but now, it feels vital.

Since those halcyon pre-Covid-19 days, local businesses have come together in partnership under the Cadwyn Ogwen project to help the community by delivering their products direct.  The ever resourceful community anchor organisation, Partneriaeth Ogwen, has once again come through for the community – pulling these suppliers together and re-purposing their community-owned electric car, named “Carwen”, to deliver the supplies including veg, cheese, mushrooms etc. direct to homes.

Now I know, should my family have to self isolate, I would be able to have local food delivered to my house.  I know many friends who are shielding due to various health conditions and are unable to get mainstream supermarket home deliveries.  However, these local, micro businesses, working co-operatively and supported by a passionate and quick acting community enterprise, are responding with empathy and immediacy to the needs of their community, providing people with a reliable service that the ‘big fish’ cannot guarantee them.

Carwen the electric car always had the aim of helping those who can’t drive to get to medical appointments etc.  But this much needed expanded remit is now a lifeline for many.  Partneriaeth Ogwen, with all their agility and ability to react quickly to a changing situation, are able to support the vulnerable and self-isolating within the community.

I cannot leave out the pizza maker that has closed during the pandemic and is now selling flour (yes, that substance more precious than gold) from the car park in Bethesda.  My partner was able to use his daily exercise to cycle down with a couple of empty containers – when he came back they were full of flour, plus they had given him fresh yeast too!  And we did that most precious of lockdown activities – bread making!

The latest offering that popped up on my Twitter feed – flagship social enterprise Antur Waunfawr are producing cider, which you can pay for by PayPal and they will deliver – what more can these incredible social enterprises bring to the table?!

On the subject of flour, we have also managed to buy some from our local convenience store – this tiny little shop have been able to source flour from a local bakery – whilst the big supermarkets can offer none.  And I am so grateful to the local butcher in Llanrug that is delivering to my wider family who are all shielding.  My mum shops there regularly and they know her and have been so helpful and kind.

In terms of wider co-operation – and larger distribution of food a supplies, I can thank my employer, my friends and Suma for that.  Many years ago, the Wales Co-operative Centre held a staff competition during Fairtrade Fortnight.  The member of staff who made the best pledge won a bag of fairtrade goodies.  I won!  And, even better, I was a woman of my word and actually stuck to my winning pledge of getting together with friends to set up a community buying co-operative (informal, rather than formalized).  Four families, all local, buying direct from Suma – the wholesale worker co-operative.  We have been doing this for years.  So, when I realized that I shouldn’t have rolled my eyes over panic buying and that there was actually nothing left on the shelves for my family, instead of getting that ‘bad mum’ feeling, I was immediately grateful for the stores of rice, pasta, tinned tomatoes, cleaning products, soap and other provisions bought pre COVID-19.  When you’re in a buying co-op everything comes in bulk!

I know there is also the Bethesda Wholefood Co-operative – built and run by volunteers, they are working so hard to get everyone’s orders in and to keep their high street shop stocked.  This small co-operative has been running since the 1970s!

I am blessed to be in work still (it means we still have one income through this), working for an incredible employer.  I am blessed that my children have a small garden and that we live in a rural community, so our daily exercise is quiet and pretty stress free (apart from the constant reminders to them not to touch everything!)  And I am thankful for these things every day, I know that these are not things to be taken for granted.  I know this is not everyone’s experience and that is on my mind every day; I feel such anger and pain when I think of the hurt and the grief that is the experience of so many people right now.

I felt compelled to write this mainly because I am anxious and small scale local shopping reduces that anxiety so much – connection has been so impactful.  I think that these small, local connections and the lifeline that has been the foundational economy should be available to all.

This is all available in such a small geographical area – and I’m sure it is happening all over Wales – whether it be local butchers or grocery stores who are making deliveries to the vulnerable, those who are shielding, or self-isolating (when they would be waiting a month for a large supermarket delivery slot) or the social enterprises coordinating local responses – ensuring members of the community get the provisions they need.

Now, I’m a practical person, I know that these local connections cannot meet all my family’s survival and wellbeing needs and that larger scale retail and other industries are needed too (I especially am grateful to the Co-op Group for the way they have approached this most challenging of times, via their local stores).  This is by no means me downgrading the huge contribution those working in larger supermarkets are playing, how amazing they too have been.  In writing with passion about the small scale, I am not discounting the big scale at all.  But I have to say that these community-based networks and the connections to food and support locally have given me a sense of security and relief at a time and in a world where there is very little of either right now.  I would love for every person in Wales to have the same.

The strongest of feelings in my gut is that when we emerge from this, whenever that may be, this is the stuff we need to build on.  Our focus must be on all those social enterprises and co-operatives, and all those foundational economy businesses and partnerships that have provided this to my family and others across Wales.  Wales needs to look to strengthen them and replicate them, so that every community in our great nation of Wales has the same.  Through guiding principles that many co-operators throughout history have held dear – through co-operation amongst co-ops, through partnership working and community ownership, and through generating profit for social good – we can (and must) build on this.  I hope for my little ones and all future generations that we do just that in Wales.  If this way of living closer to the land and local production and working together at a community level can become the new ‘normal’ (so many are trying to predict what that will be right now!), we can ensure future generations are prepared and resilient though the months and years ahead and that they will be able to provide for themselves and support each other through all that life may throw at them.

Now to find out how to order that social enterprise cider!

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