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RIGA - Supermarkets have radically changed the way we consume food. In the Western world, we can now buy almost any type of food we like - anytime, anywhere. We don’t even realize anymore how special it is that we can eat strawberries in winter, or mangos in the Baltics. But many of the products we thoughtlessly throw into our shopping carts in the supermarket have traveled half-way across the planet, have been stored for months, and were produced under unknown circumstances.
These are just some of the reasons for more and more urban Latvian families to organize themselves into so-called “Direct Buying” groups (Tiesa Pirksana). These groups collectively purchase their groceries from local, organic farmers, without intermediaries such as supermarkets or distributors. There are now 11 groups in Riga alone, and 5 more in cities such as Cesis and Sigulda, together serving more than 600 families.
From personal challenge to hype
The Direct Buying community in Latvia was founded by two Rigan friends, Zane Rugena and Elina Zusa. “Five years ago, I felt the need to provide healthier food for myself and my baby daughter. So I created a personal challenge: eat only organic food for 30 days,” Zane recalls. Eco shops were too expensive, so she decided to contact an organic farm in Gulbene and get her food directly from the source. Soon, friends and family got inspired, and they decided to organize themselves.
Zane and Elina modeled their community on a concept they had seen in France. “Direct Buying is not just about buying organic products. It is about being aware of the entire process of farming; knowing where your food comes from. Forty-two percent of our environmental footprint consists of food, but people don’t even realize this. They have lost touch with nature,” Zane believes. This is why the Direct Buying community also organizes excursions to participating farms, and requires members to volunteer regularly.
Direct Buying in Practice
Every Wednesday, group members receive a list of available products, prepared by one of the volunteers. They fill out their order online - usually via a simple Google Form - and another volunteer forwards the orders to the farmers. On Monday, the farmers bring their products to distribution points in schools, cafes and offices, where the goods are divided into crates - one per member. In the evening, the members pick up their food; payments are handled in cash.
The community has had no problem attracting new members - some groups even have waiting lists. “But Direct Buying is not for everybody,” Zane warns. “You must be ready for the relationship with the group and with the farmers.”
The Five Principles
The Direct Buying Web site (/goto/www.tiesapirksana.lv/personigi-ediens) lists five guiding principles: eat seasonal, local, organic, (semi-)vegetarian food, obtained through short supply chains. In practice, 99 percent of the products offered are certified organic and every single product is local and - in the case of fruit and vegetables - seasonal.
“In the beginning it was difficult to get farmers to join our community; they did not know how they could benefit. So we asked French farmers to talk to their Latvian colleagues, and that helped a lot,” Zane recalls. “Nowadays, I get a couple of calls per month from farmers asking me: ‘If I switch to organic production, will you buy my products?’”
This new way of distributing food does mean that farmers have to expand their skill set: they have to be marketeers, distributors and packaging experts, too. But they seem to be picking up these skills quickly enough. Most farmers supply several groups in one city, and they pool together to transport their products.
The community itself is also still learning. What to do when products are not picked up or delivered? What if the cherry harvest fails? Should members return empty jars for re-use? Zane: “One group even joked about appointing a ‘plastic bag manager.’”
Despite the ongoing learning curve, the Direct Buying community feels ready to expand. Starting next month, the community will go on tour, teaching interested parties in 5 cities how to start their own Direct Buying group.
Dutch journalist Janny Ramakers lives in Riga and works for the Latvian NGO ‘homo ecos:’ which educates people about sustainability and promotes a greener lifestyle.