From Iceland — Digging A Way Out: Austurlands Food Coop Tries To Recover

Digging A Way Out: Austurlands Food Coop Tries To Recover

Digging A Way Out: Austurlands Food Coop Tries To Recover

Published April 12, 2021

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Austurlands Food Coop/Ida Feltendal

Austurlands Food Coop, an initiative started by Jonathan Moto Bisagni and Ida Feltendal in 2019, was a boon to Seyðisfjörður and Iceland as a whole. The coop sought to bring fresh organic produce to Iceland—something very lacking on our cold North Atlantic rock—and their produce boxes have been a hit. All that changed last December, however, when landslides struck the East Iceland village and badly hurt their business—they lost a great deal of stock, and incurred damages in the millions.

Since then, they have been struggling to recover, and recently held a sushi pop-up in an effort to do just that. But as Jonathan tells us, they are far from out of the woods.

Shaky ground

“I don’t know where we’d be right now if we didn’t do the sushi pop-up,” he tells us. “I don’t know how we would’ve been able to pay our bills. I feel like it was the right thing to do at the right time. It worked out, and it got us through that month. That being said, we’re still on some shaky ground. We’re scraping by. We’ve never been super profitable, but we’re just chipping away at added-up debt.”

The duo are currently exploring other ways of getting back on their feet, including various funds and grants, such as those offered by the non-government organisation Austurbrú. These options have been far from perfect, however.

“My only problem initially with this is I already have my hands full with the situation right now, and haven’t quite recovered from it fully,” Jonathan says. “The way the incentive grant system is set up is to fund new projects. So it’s a little bit tough for me to add new projects onto the drawing board. After reading the rules, which were just released right before Easter, I was kind of upset, like, jeez man, all I need is some relief. I don’t need to add more to my plate. To me, in my situation, in order to help these businesses that exist, and were affected by this, it would be nice if the government stepped in and helped with uninsured losses and things like this.”

“My business lost quite a lot of money, and had to pay out a lot of expenses, somewhere in the range of 3 to 5 million ISK,” he continues. “But other businesses were completely wiped out. Like the hairdressers was completely wiped out. The only thing that’s been covered by disaster insurance has been real estate. So landlords and people that bought property in this town have gotten compensated for the fire appraisals of their buildings that were completely destroyed.”

Jonathan pointed out that “In Seyðisfjörður it’s a weird situation, because of the threat of landslides, we have an artificially low property value. So the fire appraisal is sometimes six times the market value of the house. A lot of people that owned those buildings got compensated well more than they paid for the house, which is great for them, but a lot of the smaller guys with smaller businesses like myself, we’ve incurred losses that are not insured at all.”

A nice chat with the Prime Minister

Exercising his democratic right to petition elected officials, Jonathan opted to go right to the top to amend the situation.

“We really need someone with deep pockets who sees this inevitable future to get us out of surviving mode, and into thriving mode, so that we can actually become something that’s never going to go away.”

“I contacted [Prime Minister] Katrín Jakobsdóttir about this, she called me back, and we actually talked about this,” he tells us. “I said that I’m not asking for a hand-out of free money or something. What would really help me out is if I could have access to a government backed loan, like the one they offered all these tourism businesses. It’s great for tourists, but I feel like I’ve been working my ass off through this pandemic, and something like this, and I’m facing losing everything because there wasn’t proper defensive action taken 20 years ago when they made this risk assessment originally, or because some elected official prioritised another project over having defenses on our mountains and protecting our people.”

“She was super nice,” he says. “We talked for a half an hour, and then someone from her office reached out to me and we talked for an hour and a half. They were very kind and empathetic and understanding.”

“Once the allocation rules were released, I texted her asking what was going on, because I’m drowning in work as it is, and it seems like I’m being asked to create more work in order just to receive some sort of support, but it’s not really the support I’m actually looking for. She texted me back asking if we can talk about this after Easter, and she was very nice. Then I spoke with the people at Austurbrú who explained that this was actually a good thing and made for people like me.”

Just call him!

“I’m hoping that the outcome of these funds is something that’s going to be very long term, and will put our company on a trajectory where it’s more streamlined and we have the proper facilities,” Jonathan says. “We’re right now running on a very DIY, just-get-it-done kind of thing.”

At the same time, the success of the Austurlands Food Coop was built on people believing in what they’re doing, and that’s what they need most right now.

“That’s how this project has gotten to where it’s been,” he says. “It’s just been people really happy to be a part of something that they know will change things and improve the quality of life.”

When asked what others can do to help out, Jonathan is very succinct.

“Just call me,” he says. “That’s how we started this thing. When I think about becoming more legitimate of a business in the future, I’m doing this because of a need. I see that someone needs to do this. I’m almost doing this out of activism. Eating good is a right; not a privilege. People should have variety. They should have options and not feel cornered into buying something because it’s 50% off. It’s a weird way to do your shopping. So right now, we really need an ‘angel investor’ as they call it. We need someone who sees what we’re doing and sees it as the natural progression for food. People are going to want healthier options, fresher options. This is something that hasn’t been embraced wholly by our current grocery stores. We really need someone with deep pockets who sees this inevitable future to get us out of surviving mode, and into thriving mode, so that we can actually become something that’s never going to go away. But apart from that, even just subscribing to the boxes really helps us out, because this helps us run our business more efficiently. We’re coming up now in prime season, and for the next six months it just gets better and better.”

You can visit https://foodcoop.is/ for more information and to subscribe to their boxes.

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