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Crisis-hit communities around the world are trading time for food

Food market in Italy
Getty Images/Peter Macdiarmid
Italy’s pseudo-food cooperative is helping its people put food on the table without taking money out of their pockets.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

With unemployment at a 20-year high in Italy and up to one-quarter of Italian families now falling below the poverty line, according to recent government statistics, putting food on the table has become increasingly difficult. One bright spot has emerged in the city of Modena, where the local social services authority, working together with the city’s volunteer services body, has opened a “social” grocery market called Portobello.

A cross between a time bank and cooperative, Portobello offers the opportunity for families in the community that have been means tested to swap points for groceries. These points are initially allocated by the local social services authority, but can be topped up as customers volunteer time to help run the market, and are stored on a payment card. Others can donate time, money and products to the market to help keep it running, Portobello says, but only those screened by social services can take part as customers. The market is also offering mortgage renegotiation help, budgeting assistance and other services to get cash-strapped residents back on their feet. It provides services for a maximum of two years.

Portobello’s creators are quick to stress the transactional nature of the market, which they view as different than a normal food voucher scheme. Speaking recently to Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera (Italian), project founder Luigi Zeroni said Portobello’s goal was to “produce solidarity, not consume it.” Modena sits in the middle of Italy’s industrial food production belt, with major pasta, cheese, wine and meat producers based in surrounding Emilia-Romagna, and perhaps because of this tradition of production, the region also generates between one-third and almost half of its GDP from cooperative businesses, among the highest in Europe.

Turning on the time banks

Stressed communities throughout Europe have turned to similar schemes in recent years to deal with being caught between contracting economies and slashed social safety nets, and are creating time banks as a way to engage labor in return for a non-monetary compensation in the form of services. This is being done in some cases for no other reason than to keep services flowing in local communities and keep skills of the unemployed sharp.

While the concept of time banking, or reciprocal service exchange, isn’t new, these areas have seen a resurgence in the use of time banks, with new ones spawning on the US coasts, in distressed cities like Detroit, Michigan, in harder hit parts of the UK, and across the Mediterranean, as capital flows in these areas become tight. Trading an hour of work, for a service such as childcare, home repair or accounting, for a tradable token or points (typically not converted to an actual currency, to keep the tax authorities from eating into the systems’ effectiveness) creates a form of local liquidity that, while not likely to scale, works well for the immediate community involved.

According to a count done in early 2012, there were as many as 300 time banks running in Spain alone, where some of the most acute pain from the euro zone crisis has been felt. Add this to rapid growth of consumption co-ops and other types of local exchanges emerging in Spain, Greece, and across Southern Europe, and it becomes clear that citizens have taken reconstructing economic systems into their own hands, not waiting for European central bankers to float a life preserver from above.

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