Valerie O’Connor packs her shopping basket with the best of locally produced food at a thriving urban co-op.

Gor a while there it looked like the whole farmers’ market phenomenon was going to be a flash in the proverbial pan of trends. 

A hip gourmet burger, gluten-free everything, organic — were these ‘notions’ that would come and go and would we eventually return to the supermarket aisle?

Clearly not. People’s food shopping has changed, more and more of us are recognising the obvious links between what we eat and our health and are keen to access locally grown and organic food. 

Somewhere along the way organic became linked with middle class or elitist, not helped by elite chefs telling us we should spend €20 on an organic chicken and therefore outraging most of the population.

While sales of expensive organic foods are down, the demand for meat reared without the use of antibiotics and other foods that are produced without the use of chemicals is on the up. 

But where do these foods come from? Mostly from the small producer who doesn’t grow enough for the big supermarkets and would never get paid enough, even if they did.

In Limerick city, a group of forward-thinking people got together to create a cooperative where the plan was to provide a place for local growers to sell their veg on to the customer, other foods like bread and eggs, milk and dry organic goods were a natural match and so the Urban Co-op was born.

Initially, the shop was open only on Fridays from its first days as a buyers’ club in 2013, so boxes of food were put together, based on advance orders from members.

To join the Co-op you had to become a member for the princely sum of €1, but now anyone can shop here.

Deirdre MacMahon, chairperson and founding member of the Co-op, has seen the place grow from tiny seeds and is now proud of having created a model that other towns and cities are keen to follow.

“We’ve had enquiries from Galway and Belfast and are delighted that all our hard work is making an impression,” she says.

MacMahon works on a volunteer basis but is happy that the shop has been able to take on three paid staff in the past year thanks to support from Limerick Regeneration.

“Regeneration see us as one of their success stories and maybe a co-op isn’t what people think of when they think of the work that Regen is doing, but it’s made all the difference in us still being here or not.”

The shop has parking facilities and a cafe with the best organic coffee and the potential to do even greater things.

I am a weekly shopper at the Co-op. My basket looks something like this, and we all buy pretty much the same things all the time: local eggs, (if I’m lucky I’ll be early enough for Cathy’s eggs, they are the freshest and the best — there’s that secret busted), sourdough bread from Joe Fitzmaurice at Riotrye in Cloughjordan, simply the best bread in the land; kale, spinach and salads from Jim Cronin; potatoes and pumpkins from Chris Enright in Kilkornan; Caroline Rigney’s Granola and organic raw milk from Sean Condon.

I can also pick up some imported organic fruit like pineapple and coconuts. If you haven’t tasted the organic versions of these fruits, please hunt them down, there is no comparison.

“When you come here to buy your food you don’t just get a nice and calm, friendly shopping experience, you can also meet the grower sometimes and chat to them,” says MacMahon.

“And of course we recognise that kids are a big part of life so they have a corner full of toys to play with or they can just sit and colour while Mum or Dad take a break and have a coffee.”

One particularly popular product is frozen bone broth from Céile — not everyone is into boiling bones to make their own and would rather leave it to the experts.

The Co-op serves as a sort of food hub too, people who are keen on better health and having access to what’s happening in food and health will come here.

“We started running classes and food workshops recently and they have brought new people through the doors so that’s something we plan on continuing.”

The Co-op also sells honey from Bee Active in Adare which gets honey from particular hives within a small radius. 

This results in delicious honey that’s high in antibacterial properties so you’re getting the best for any allergies you may have.

When I ask MacMahon if the shop gets many local customers from the surrounding area she points out the common misconception about the price of organic food.

“People assume we are more expensive than shops or even farmers’ markets, but that’s not true”, she says.

“When people shop here for the first time they are often surprised at how small the bill is, and as you can get everyday basics like Kerrygold butter, Barry’s Tea and Flahavan’s Oats as well as herbal teas and kombucha, it’s really more of a corner shop in the old sense of the word.”

Regular shopper Anne Maher shops at the Co-op every week, travelling from Co Tipperary to pick up her store of sourdough, raw milk and fresh fruits and veg.

“I’m particularly interested in eating to heal your gut and feeding my children in the best way I can, so it’s really handy for me here as I can get all my fresh foods as well as great nut butters, coconut and amaranth flours and some lovely herbal teas.”

Her kids are busy colouring in pictures and hanging them up on the walls as we chat.

“Everything we stock in the shop is here because someone has asked for it,” says MacMahon.

“Things like buckwheat and hempseed oil are here because people have asked for them, it’s completely member led, there aren’t a slot of places to shop that put the customer first, at this level.”

This is, as they always said on Sesame Street, what co-operation is all about.

* The Urban Co-op, Mulgrave Street, Limerick, 061-314 707, www.theurbanco-op.ie 


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