When Eggcup members come to the Lancaster Hub or the Morecambe outlet to choose their food, they always find fresh milk, eggs, and bread. They may not all realise it, but these items are different from the rest of their shop.

Eggcup was set up to intercept surplus food and distribute it to people who can use it, to keep it from going to waste. Some weeks there is a lot, some weeks there is less, and sometimes there are surprising items; last week I saw mangoes and mascarpone cheese, as well as the usual veg, fruit, tinned goods, cereals and bread. Because it is surplus, we can’t be sure what we will get.

David France, our Charity Manager, says ‘Surplus food is unpredictable, but we know that there are some food items that most of our members use every week’. Last March, he started looking for ways to get a reliable supply of some essentials, by pooling the buying power of Eggcup members. He started it at the new Rylands Food Club, asking members

which items they needed most. Then with Covid-19 shutting down food clubs, he extended it to all the people getting our food club parcels. It has extended further, to include Stanleys, Ridge, Skerton, and Marsh food clubs, Poulton Pantry, Food for Thought, and both our local food banks, so there are now nearly a thousand members.

The idea of the buying cooperative is this: each member contributes £2, on top of the £3 they would usually pay each week towards the costs of delivering the surplus food scheme. They would then get 2 litres of milk, a half dozen eggs, and a loaf of white bread in addition to the surplus food. David can get them cheaper by buying them in bulk from distributors and wholesalers. Sometimes we need to repackage them; for instance, the eggs come in big cardboard boxes containing 30 dozen. Our volunteers put them in the rather more usable cartons of half a dozen. We have the warehouse space and industrial chillers to take in the bulk quantities before we distribute them out across all the groups who take part.

David figures the equivalent items would cost around £2.50 from Asda, or £3.50 from a local Spar. But through most of the year, we have been able to get other funds to keep the cost down even more, with members paying only £1. First from a Transformation Challenge Award, then from crisis funding from the Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, and recently from Lottery funding. That makes it an incredible bargain. David calculates the overall savings to all buying cooperative members through this year to be over £80,000.

It has also been good for local food businesses in this Covid-19 crisis year. As David says, ‘We have been able to support local wholesalers when their usual customer base disappeared’.

Members sometimes ask why we can’t have other items, such as plant-based milk or wholemeal bread. The problem is that we get these low prices by buying for a thousand people. If we have different items, for a smaller number, we don’t get the good deals. But David would like to expand the programme, for instance to include more fresh veg, if we have a large enough group to buy pallet-loads of veg at a time.

The cooperative does not make Eggcup any money, and it takes a lot of work to order, store, repackage and distribute the food items. But it is not just about cheap food. This is an activity that brings together different food organisations in our area, to discuss what their members need. In this, they aren’t competing for the surplus food or grants, they are collaborating, pooling their resources for a better deal. As David says, ‘We want to embed the idea that by coming together as communities, we can create and be part of solutions that benefit us individually and collectively’.