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Supporting fair and ethical business in partnership with The Co-operative Bank

True Food Co-op: Affordable organic produce for the community

Case study

14th April 2023
Co-op development
True Food Co-op

Find out how a local shop enhanced its mission to nourish and educate its members with help from Business Support for Co-ops from Co-operatives UK in partnership with The Co-operative Bank. 

True Food Co-op is a not-for-profit community shop in Reading that sells local, ethical, wholesome and organic food, toiletries and household goods. 

It began in 1999 when a small group of like-minded people wanted to buy organic and sustainable food. They joined together so they could purchase food in bulk, more affordably, then share it out between them.  

“It then became a mobile business, selling at pop-up markets and going to village halls. It shifted from being a buying club to an enterprise with a mission to make organic food affordable and accessible to the community,” said Chair of True Food, Cathy Hughes. 

In 2004, True Food became a co-op and in 2010 it opened a mini supermarket in Emmer Green, north of Reading. “Our supermarket gives us the space to offer a huge range of foods – from cupboard staples to ingredients for special diets, as well as household refills.

“Our loose foods are particularly popular – we have a fantastic range of pulses, rice, dried fruit, nuts and cereals. Customers can buy in small amounts if that’s what they need.”  

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Being a co-op is an important part of who we are. It enables us to feel we are part of the community and owned by the community. Because we’re a community co-op, we do other things. We give talks about organic farming, and we have a broader remit that our members support. It gives us the ability to respond to what the community wants and needs.
– Cathy Hughes, Chair, True Food Co-op

Fast forward to 2022 and the business needed to reassess its position after changes in shopper behaviour due to the Covid-19 pandemic.  

“More and more, people were buying their groceries online, so it reached the point where we didn’t know what to do next. We weren’t sure how to move forward in a strategic way.” said Cathy.  

That’s when they reached out for help from Co-operatives UK’s Business Support for Co-ops, delivered in partnership with The Co-operative Bank – which funded expert guidance from Co-op Culture’s Nathan Brown.  

“It really helped us think things through. When you’ve been around a long time, it can be hard to see new ways of doing things. It was good to have Nathan help us look at things with fresh eyes. That was crucial.  

A Christmas wine tasting session at True Food
A Christmas wine tasting session at True Food

“We had several meetings that took us back to basics and helped us articulate why our business matters. It gave us a better logic to why we’re doing this today, rather than why we set up in the first place.  

“We went through our strengths and weaknesses and Nathan helped us identity our key strategic goals going forward. As a result of this work with Nathan, our approach to membership changed.” 

A community co-op, True Food had previously required members to commit time to volunteering but there were people who couldn’t meet that commitment. “So we changed all that and made it much easier for people to be members,” Cathy said.  

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We launched a new membership scheme in October and within a month our members doubled. Former members who’d dropped out because they didn’t have time to volunteer have now re-joined and get involved in different ways. It’s rejuvenated our whole membership.
– Cathy Hughes

Nathan also helped Cathy and her colleagues devise a marketing plan. “We looked at who our customers are and how to target them. It’s been really helpful. We’ve put a lot of energy into doing that and we’re now seeing our sales go up because of it. 

“The key thing we’ve done is identify who our shoppers are and how we attract them. We’ve advertised in places with a clear target market in mind. We’d been quite general up until that point.  

“The business support from Co-operatives UK gave us the space and structure to do some crucial strategic thinking. It has enabled us to turn a corner.

“Thanks to this help, we are on a better footing than before. So we are now turning our attention to providing more information and education. That’s anything from sharing recipes and information on how to use natural cleaning products to bigger educational projects, which we’re developing.”  

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