It's a bizarre sight: rows of polished church pews, each dotted with neat piles of fruit or veg. Shoppers scoop heaps into baskets, trolleys, or crumpled plastic bags saved from previous trips to Tesco.
This is a weekly food shop, cooperative style - a model of food distribution where neighbours work together to take control of their local supply chain. The system is simple: find a supplier, buy in bulk and collectively cover the costs. Smaller co-ops will only buy what participants have ordered, whereas larger organisations operate as markets or even set up their own shops. Some of these "community" co-ops invite customers to become members. You pay a nominal fee to be able to shop from it, or have a say in how it is run. Others are more informal and open to all. There are also "workers'" co-ops, which are often much larger organisations, where paid employees share all key business decisions.
The concept, of course, is far from new, but it's proving increasingly popular. "Interest is definitely growing," says John Atherton of Co-operatives UK, an organisation that supports cooperative enterprise across Britain. "We're seeing rising numbers of buying groups and community shops. It's a trend that is set to continue."
The motivations are many: fears about food security; food inflation; the power of supermarkets; the bruised image of capitalism; a lost sense of community.
Across Britain, food co-ops are sprouting up in school halls, community centres, farm sheds or even your neighbour's front room - anywhere, in fact, where rent is free.
"I use the term 'trust trading'," says Dan Dempsey, manager of a project establishing food co-ops in Wales. In essence, he says, it's about a return to traditional routes of trade: reconnecting farmers with communities, and countryside to cities; paying a fair price and avoid markups by middlemen.
With strong backing from the Welsh assembly, his team has helped to launch 180 food co-ops in the last three years, supplying 6,000 families and turning over around £1m. "We're cracking the system," he says. "Supermarkets don't have to dominate."
It was this notion of trust that inspired the Rochdale Pioneers, established in 1844 and widely regarded as the first successful food co-op. At the time, food adulteration was commonplace. Unscrupulous traders were known to whiten flour with alum (plaster of paris) and dry used tea leaves before reselling them. Not much has changed: from the current scare over pork contaminated with dioxins, to the melamine-in-baby-milk scandal in China, the parallels could not be more striking.
Trealaw Food Co-op, Rhondda Valley, Wales
Nestled in the Rhondda Valley, Trealaw is a long, thin strip of houses barely two streets wide. This post-industrial swathe of Wales boasts an Aldi, a Lidl and an Asda. Yet Trealaw Food Co-op still manages to have around 200 members. Every Thursday morning they collect their pre-ordered bags of fruit and vegetables from the local church. For £3 you get what would cost you about £7 in the local supermarket.
"Word is spreading," says member Faye Jones. "We offer the personal touch, the way it used to be in the shops." The nearby school collates orders from teachers and parents and a local wholesaler delivers the produce.
Volunteers divvy it up into bags and pop in recipe cards and leaflets from local organisations such as Age Concern.
"We're always trying something new," explains Jones, who also revels in the social aspect: "They are not members as such; they are friends."
• Details: 01443 444 591
Unicorn Grocery, Manchester
"Equal pay, equal say," is the slogan of this worker's co-op in south Manchester. It's your dream whole-foods shop: brightly lit, well-stocked; run by motivated, happy staff.
Since it opened in 1996, annual turnover has reached £3.5m. "We're all 'member owners', not unskilled supermarket employees," explains founder Adam York.
Staff share business decisions and earn a flat rate of pay. A quarterly bonus is weighted by length of service. Recently, Unicorn began to grow its own produce in a market garden nearby. To boost production, last month the company bought 21 acres of prime growing land 14 miles west of the shop.
Customers helped to raise the capital after being invited to invest in "loanstock", a type of five-year fixed term bond, setting their own interest rate anywhere between 0 and 6%. "We like to think that this model - which has been around for quite a while - is about to come into its own," says York.
• Details: unicorn-grocery.co.uk
Just Trade, Lewes, East Sussex
"It's always a fun night," says coordinator Keith Rapley, describing Just Trade's bi-monthly shopping evening. Established in 1995, the emphasis is on dry goods. Local honey and apple juice are available as well as 300 items from Infinity, a cooperative distributor based in Brighton. It costs £6 per year to be a member. About 80 members download their order form from the website, and then collect their goods from a local school.
"It's a good way to stay out of the supermarkets," says member Lorraine Serrecchia. She prefers to spend her money in the community, and supplements her Just Trade order with fresh produce from local shops.
• Details: justtrade.org; 01273 473651
St Andrew's Food Co-op, London
Father Martin believes in throwing his church doors wide open. Every Tuesday, while members come to stock up on fresh produce, volunteers run a creche in one corner and a coffee morning in another. The co-op has 50 regulars, who pick up enough fruit or veg to keep a family of four going for a week for £3, ordered a week in advance. Only 10 or so of them worship at the church. There's no, "Here's your banana; here's your Bible," explains Martin.
A market trader from nearby North End Road delivers its order en route back from the wholesalers. "It's the opposite of going to Waitrose," says Martin. "It's so cheap; no packaging or plastic bags; minimal food miles."
Joanna Dugdale has been a member for six months. She appreciates the ethical virtue, she says, but what most impresses is the value: "My gripe with the supermarkets is that they really overcharge for healthy food."
• Details: standrewsfulham.com; 0207 385 5023
Food For All, Bristol
This project started small: "It was a just a cupboard in an office," laughs 77-year-old Lola Hardingham, co-op member and volunteer. It now occupies a proper shop, which is open five days a week. The neighbourhood is far from affluent: "People always turn up their noses about Hartcliffe," she says.
Stock is organic and local: fruit and veg from a community market garden; meat and cheese from a farm shop; dry goods from Essential, a wholesaler and workers' co-op based in the city. Anyone can shop, but co-op members, who pay £2 annually, receive a 10% discount. Current membership is
around 200. Volunteers also run stalls in old people's homes, sheltered housing and community centres.
Sales are up and down. "The shop's a bit quiet," says Zoe Templar, manager.
Regulars blame Morrison's, who have recently opened nearby.
• Details: foodforallbristol.org.uk; 0117 9647 228
True Food Co-op, Reading
A chunky Isuzu lorry, running on biodiesel, is a familiar sight on the streets of Reading. It is stuffed with fridges, trestle tables and a vast range of foodstuffs. True Food runs an average of five markets each week, typically at community centres. Members buy shares (it's up to them how much they pay) which entitle them to have a say in how it is run, with all profits invested back into the business or the community. Membership stands at 140. The website includes a list of tasks for volunteers to sign up for.
It has been a decade's work for Chris Aldridge, a founder member. The organisation began life as an informal buying group, and now has an annual turnover of around £400,000. "I'm amazed and proud," says Aldridge. "We turned something that met once a month into a cooperative that involves a whole community, from all walks of life."