They say you should never talk politics at the dinner table. I’m not actually certain who ‘they’ is, but they sure sound scary.
The Ox Co-op, however, throwing caution to the wind, wants to make dinner itself political. Run from a wicked nice room above the Turl Street Kitchen, the student run social venture provides ethically sourced food on a budget, for students who can no longer stomach supporting an unsustainable supermarket-centred approach to their food. I recently visited the Ox Co-op’s ‘pop-up shop’, which operates from four until six every Friday afternoon, for a taster of the group’s work and some well delicious organic snacks.
After conquering the stairs and locating the shop, a splendid sight met my eyes. The selection of fair trade Divine chocolate was heavenly. The quantity of muesli moved me. There was also a pretty comprehensive range of pastas and other dry food stuffs.
I had a chat with some of the volunteers manning or womanning or anythingelsing the shop to find out more.
The group’s roots lie in the appetite of a few friends from Hertford College to change the way in which they consumed around three years ago. After reading stories about Tesco and other supermarkets not paying suppliers fairly, or forcing small producers to take on the giant shops’ discounts, they decided to source their food more directly, sharing the costs together.
The fruit of their labours? The Ox Co-op is an increasingly vibrant and diverse enterprise, with more customers and turnover than ever before. “We took £5000 last year,” Nic, a committee member and chief email replier of the Co-op, tells me, “but in the first three weeks of the Michaelmas term alone, we earned £1500.”
This is not to suggest, however, that the group’s motivation is to turn a profit. On the contrary, as Nic says, “We sell everything as close to the buying price as possible.” A large bar of Divine chocolate, for example, would go for £2.20 at Oxfam, burning a sizeable hole in the pocket of your jeans. If you’d prefer to save your trousers, however, the Co-op does sell the same thing for a trifling £1.90.
One of the most successful feathers in the Co-op’s hat is their organic fruit n’ veg box, which costs either £5 or £10 according to size. The box does exactly what it says on the box, with seasonal produce sourced from the Sandy Lane organic farm, a family owned establishment situated just outside Oxford. Boxes currently contain kail, squash and an unholy quantity of Brussel sprouts, but the contents, evidently (or not, depending on how often you hazard a journey into the countryside), changes according to the seasons. A single box will get you quite far. “I live in a house of three and, with some additions, a £10 box lasts a week,” Nic explains.
The boxes have not been without their controversy, as the recent ‘Squelongate’ scandal demonstrated. One student believed that the dishes which he had cooked with a Crown Prince squash, a notoriously saccharine variety of the root vegetable, were overly sweet, and, making a meal out of the situation, he accused the group of mistakenly giving him a melon. Arguments were fierce and protracted on the Ox Co-op’s Facebook page, until the student’s claims were eventually squashed.
At the moment, the Co-op is working to diversify its operations and broaden its range of products. An innovative fruit and veg delivery scheme, it is hoped, will expand the group’s clientele. More publicity would help would help, however, bemoans Peter Whales, 21, the group’s sprightly delivery cyclist. “Not enough customers,” he wistfully remarks. Elsewhere, household items, such as organic shampoo, have recently been introduced to the shop’s metaphorical shelves, with further plans to bring gluten free organic produce to the literal table.
As conversation winds to a close, I pop the magic bullet of a question. “What’s your vision for the Co-op’s future?” “We will not stop until Tesco is closed,” declares Hamish, another committee member, before adding, “I’m just joking.” One thing which the group would appreciate, aside from increased business, is more volunteers to help out, hopefully drawn from their sixty strong cohort of regular customers. To encourage this, they’re now offering the carrot of a 10% in shop discount for volunteers and a free carrot – it’s quite easy to sign up on their website. Even an hour or so would be appreciated, so it’s worth considering even if you already have a lot on your plate. The Co-op are also keen to team up with other local food-based enterprises, such as Nut Butter Punches (which offer, intriguingly, nut smoothies) and enable them to reach student markets too.
If you’re interested in buying food which is both ethical and affordable, or, as Nic says, “if you want to put your money where your mouth is without spending too much money,” why not check out the Ox Co-op’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/OxCoOp/?fref=ts) or website (http://www.oxcoop.com/pages/how-it-works) for more information.